EDGEWATER — A vote on extending the lakefront path from Edgewater to Rogers Park was yanked from the November ballot after city officials ruled that five pages of signatures on the petitions calling for the vote were forged.
The petition submitted by project leader Morry Matson, which included 1,890 names, was challenged by resident Anne Sullivan, a Rogers Park-to-Edgewater transplant who said she's been a "longtime opponent of dumping money into the lake."
Sullivan said she took a trip Downtown to see the petition for herself and at thought she'd have to fight the advisory referendum "on the ballot" rather than challenge it beforehand.
On the bus on her way home, she said she came across five pages of forged signatures.
"I laughed out loud on the bus. I said are you kidding me? You just submitted this without even thinking anybody would look at it?" Sullivan said.
The City of Chicago's Board of Election Commissioners and its handwriting expert agreed with several of Sullivan's complaints after reviewing the pages — primarily that five of at least 13 sheets of signatures, save for two names, were written in Matson's own handwriting and listed addresses for some of those signatures that weren't homes.
Matson admitted he had signed some of the signatures himself.
For example, Matson said friends and co-workers at the Ridge and Broadway Walgreen's where he works allowed him to sign the petition on their behalf, and he listed the address of Walgreens as the addresses of their homes.
Sullivan said other signatures and places of residents included Clark Street restaurants, urgent care centers and firefighters who worked, but didn't live, in the neighborhood.
Petitioners are allowed 90 days to collect signatures, but Matson told DNAinfo he had been gathering names for more than a year and three months.
By law, that's not allowed.
"The Electoral Board finds clear and convincing evidence that signatures on sheets 9 through 13 were, by his own admission, all signed by Morry Matson," the board wrote in its findings. "The purported 'signatures' on such sheets, with the exception of lines 1 and 2 on sheet 9, are not 'genuine' as required by law and that there was a pattern of fraud, false swearing and total disregard of the requirements of the election code. The Electoral Board further finds that the appropriate remedy is the invalidation of every petition sheet tainted by such conduct."
A rendering of Edgewater Beachwalk Chicago's proposal for an overhaul of the lakefront trail between Hollywood Avenue and Devon Avenue. [Provided]
Because Matson was the sole circulator of the sheets, the commissioners said Illinois law required them to throw out all of the sheets, not just the ones he admitted forging, "leaving no valid signatures."
Matson acknowledged that he later worried that the signatures might not be valid, but not knowing how to fix the problem, he said he submitted the petition anyway.
Having pushed for the project for more than 30 years, Matson said he now wishes he had consulted a legal expert to ensure his petition was correct.
He said he wasn't trying to deceive anyone, but admitted signatures he submitted were "just a mess."
"I didn't know how to take [the signatures] out. I thought there was some legal process. I didn't know you could just toss them out," Matson told DNAinfo. "It was all just silly, simple things that could have been easily avoided if I had a lawyer look at it. It was my first petition; I'd never done it before ... I never read the statutes. It was a beginner's error."
But Sullivan said the recent petition flap wasn't Matson's first.
In 2014 Matson also ran into problems getting a question on the ballot, and he faced opposition in 2013, too.
His 2014 petition was also thrown out after officials found signatures were copy and pasted on the sheets, Sullivan said.
After submitting the signatures this year, Matson announced the question meant to gauge public opinion about extending the lakefront path would be on November's ballot in the 48th Ward and on some 40th Ward ballots.
For months, he had been ramping up his campaign for an idea to connect the bike path that ends at Ardmore Avenue by Kathy Osterman beach with an elevated promenade that also would provide greater access to the lakefront for people with disabilities.
Matson has called access to the beaches in Edgewater a "civil rights issue," arguing that a more connected path would allow for greater diversity in the neighborhood.
Some neighbors have said they worry the project would lower their property values, create noisy construction and potentially bring a wave of crime to the Far North Side.
Sullivan said Matson's references to the project, calling the boardwalk a "bike path" is misleading — because pathways must be wide enough for Chicago Park District vehicles to travel on them, Sullivan likened any expansion to more of a "road."
"I understand that they screwed up Edgewater's lakefront when they built those high-rises right up against the lake," Sullivan said. "The reason I became an activist is I lived in Rogers Park where we didn't do that ... but you don't correct that mistake by making another one."
Matson said he is looking into other options.
"I've certainly learned a lot," he said.
Sullivan said she hopes election boards are more careful when it comes to petitions, and guesses had she not challenged Morton's signatures, the question would have been allowed on the ballot.
"Nobody would have looked at it," Sullivan said. "The Board of Election stamped it, accepted it. If nobody steps up and looks at it, it stands. Sometimes sorry just doesn't cut it. It's up to citizens."
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