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Citizenship snafu adds fuel to Highwood mayoral race

Harvey Knapp

Harvey Knapp

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Updated: April 9, 2013 11:40AM

A Highwood alderman has resigned from the post after discovering that officeholders must be U.S. citizens and registered voters.

But the resignation of 1st Ward Ald. Harvey Knapp, a longtime Highwood resident who is British, has set off a firestorm of questions about the delay in announcing the resignation and the validity of the votes he cast as an alderman.

According to the Highwood City Council’s minutes, Knapp cast a key vote Dec. 11 to approve a property tax levy that exceeded the tax cap of 3 percent, which required the city to exercise its home rule authority. The Highwood city code requires a two-thirds majority of its eight aldermen whenever the city uses home-rule powers. Though the levy passed 6-1 with one member absent, it would have missed the threshold without Knapp’s vote.

The actual tax levy represented a 7.3 percent increase. City records state that the sole dissenting vote came from 3rd Ward Ald. Kathy Murphy-Pieri, who is challenging Mayor Charles Pecaro in the April 9 election. Murphy-Pieri is now demanding answers about when city officials and City Attorney James Ferolo knew about the citizenship issue, and how much has been expended in legal fees on the matter.

Knapp was appointed by Pecaro in October, with the council’s approval, to finish the term of former Ald. Quintin Sepulveda.

Pecaro and Knapp say they learned of the citizenship issue in mid-December when filling out Knapp’s paperwork to file as a candidate in the upcoming April election. The filing period was Dec. 17 to Dec. 26.

“They give you a packet to fill out and one of the documents is an oath that you are a registered voter,” said Pecaro. “We’re joking around and he says, ‘I can’t do this.’

“It never dawned on me that he wasn’t a U.S. citizen and registered voter,” Pecaro said. “He has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and he’s married to a U.S. citizen. We put the kibosh on him running for office and attending any more meetings.”

Knapp tendered his notarized letter of resignation in late February, and the resignation was to be accepted at Thursday’s Highwood City Council meeting.

Pecaro attributed the delay ­— late December to late February ­— to meetings he missed due to the passing of his mother, and the difficulty Knapp had finding time to have the letter notarized because of an irregular work schedule. Knapp manages a car racing team out of Las Vegas.

“Because he wasn’t at the City Council meetings, it didn’t violate anything,” said Pecaro.

Knapp said the application he filled out for the aldermanic appointment did not ask his voter status.

“It’s not like people didn’t realize I was from a different country,” said Knapp, referring to his accent. “That is pretty obvious when you talk to me. But it’s not like you introduce yourself and say, ‘Hi. My name is Harvey. I am a green card holder.’”

Knapp said his residency status is that of legal alien.

Knapp said he has known Pecaro for a number of years, their wives are friends and their children go to school together.

“It is a very small town and a local office, and I was just wanting to help,” he said, praising recent efforts to turn around Highwood’s image. “It’s not like you are grasping for a massive political position.

“Unfortunately, there is an election for mayor. The intent was good.”

Pioneer Press obtained a series of e-mails between Highwood officials, including City Attorney James Ferolo’s legal opinion on the matter.

In a March 3 email reply to Murphy-Pieri, Ferolo wrote that he received a call from Pecaro about the citizenship issue after the holidays in late December. Pecaro asked him if Knapp could continue to serve, according to the email.

“On the call, I advised Mayor Pecaro that Mr. Knapp could not serve if (he) was not a citizen because he is thus not a registered voter,” Ferolo wrote.

“I advised the mayor (to inform) Mr. Knapp that he must resign and not come to any further meetings as an alderman.”

Ferolo said he was contacted again in late February, this time by City Manager Scott Hartman. Hartman asked for a legal opinion on what effect the improper appointment might have on the validity of the votes cast by Knapp at five council meetings he attended between October and December.

Ferolo said he believes the votes remain legal and valid under Illinois case law “as he acted under the color of a properly exercised appointment and was thus acting in a de facto capacity.”

The attorney said the appointment was “obviously made without the knowledge that Harvey was not a registered voter. This was an obvious oversight.

“I gave the proper advice to the mayor (the official appointing authority) who advised Mr. Knapp that he must resign and not attend future meetings,” Ferolo wrote.

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