The adage that every vote counts was verified Tuesday as three late-arriving absentee ballots decided a bitter race for mayor of Mettawa.
All three went to Jess Ray, a first-time candidate, who sued the village over a proposed Costco store and assembled a slate of candidates to challenge what he described as an entrenched and unresponsive local government.
His outright victory negated the need for a coin toss, a rarely-used method prescribed by state law to break ties in such cases.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster for the last two weeks," Ray said. "This shows is people can make a difference,"
About 70 percent of Mettawa's 413 registered voters cast ballots April 7, compared to 22 percent countywide.
Ray and Barry MacLean, who has served on the village board for 39 years, the last 14 as mayor, deadlocked two weeks ago on election night with 143 votes apiece.
MacLean, CEO of an international manufacturing business, was not immediately available for comment.
A few dozen candidates from various races and curious onlookers waited patiently Tuesday in Lake County Clerk Willard Helander's office as 241 provisional and late-arriving ballots for all 18 townships were certified and counted.
Fourteen absentee ballots and one provisional ballot had been outstanding in the Mettawa race. Of those, five absentee ballots were returned. Two were challenged because the signatures didn't match and were stricken. The provisional ballot was determined to be invalid, leaving the outcome hanging on three votes.
Results for trustee spots on the board did not change.
The bitter campaign was one the few contested elections since the village was established in 1959. Ray becomes the tiny village's fifth mayor.
"Will it be difficult? I anticipate everyone will get back to doing the business of the village," he said.
A survey of residents to determine what they want to see from village government and an examination of the recently approved village budget will be among the first items of business, Ray said.
Besides mayor, three, 4-year trustee terms and one 2-year term were contested by Ray's Mettawa Transparency Party and MacLean's Mettawa Preservation Party. Two from each party were elected.
"It has brought much more awareness. We've woken up the village and gotten to know all of our neighbors," said incumbent Trustee Mary Brennan, who ran unopposed for a two-year seat in 2007 and was elected to a four-year term two weeks ago.
Trustee Larry Falbe, who voted against Costco but ran with MacLean, won the two-year seat.
"Hopefully, we can get rid of some of the bad feelings," he said.
"I don't know what the future holds because Jess Ray is a litigant in this suit ... he could be in the very unusual position of being a mayor suing his own village."
Ray, a retired marketing executive, was in a Lake County circuit courtroom as the ballot results were announced.
He filed a complaint against the village last fall regarding the sale of village property for a Costco store, alleging village officials misrepresented why they wanted the land at Route 60 and the Tri-State Tollway.
The Costco proposal was the key issue in the mayoral and trustee races.
Ray celebrated a second victory Tuesday when Judge Mitchell Hoffman allowed three of five counts in Ray's lawsuit to stand. That means Ray has valid causes of action to proceed with certain allegations including fraud.
"This is the best possible outcome for an Earth Day celebration," he said.
Litigation could last years and it is unclear what the impact will be on Costco, which has a contract to buy the land, or what actions a new village board might take.