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Locked out: Thornton Township Assessor no longer able to keep taxpayer info secure

By Melanie Jongsma
The Lansing Journal

“My concern is, we have confidential, sensitive papers that are now in a common area,” said Thornton Township Assessor Cassandra Elston this morning (June 7). When Elston came to work yesterday, she found that the locks on her office door had been changed and her key no longer worked.

Thornton Township Assessor Cassandra Elston stands in the Thornton Township
parking lot Wednesday morning, June 7. She was on the phone with Fox 32’s
Dane Placko, who had called for an update on whether Elston had been
locked out of the building. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

She also found piles of paperwork sitting on a table in the common area outside her office, an area that sees foot traffic from 50–100 people every day. That paperwork includes names, addresses, income details, social security numbers, and sometimes medical information about people who come to the Assessor’s Office for help applying for tax exemptions, property reassessments, and other programs.

In fact, while The Lansing Journal was recording our conversation with Assessor Elston in the common area outside her office, a security guard confirmed the sensitivity of the information sitting on the table in front of us. “The reason you can’t have the cameras on is because personal information is here,” he explained, suggesting that the solution was for us to stop recording. We assured him we would not include the forms in our video, though they were in plain sight.

Deadlines and delays

Not only is Elston worried about the security of the confidential information her office had been entrusted with, she is also aware of the deadlines associated with those applications. “If these applications aren’t in by the deadline, the taxpayers will not get the exemptions,” she said.

With the paperwork now in piles outside of Elston’s office — piles created by someone else — Elston is not sure which applications have already been entered into the system and which were awaiting input. Yesterday she was also unable to log in to her computer, another impediment to her efforts to assist taxpayers.

Public service

Most of Lansing is in Thornton Township, and many Lansing property owners have been served by Assessor Elston and her office. Last September Elston and Lansing Mayor Patty Eidam hosted a property tax workshop at the Lansing Public Library. And during the pandemic, Elston was among the officials who sponsored online webinars that would allow taxpayers to get information remotely rather than risk in-person exposure.

“Wherever the taxpayers want me, that’s where I go,” said Elston. “I told staff when I first got here, ‘Wherever they come from, help them. They’re taxpayers; they need help. They pay taxes, they need help, let’s help them all.’”

Tired of the drama that has surrounded Thornton Township over the past 15 months, Assessor Elston said, “We just need to get about the business of serving our people.”

Statement from Tiffany Henyard

At 4:39 p.m. on Wednesday The Lansing Journal received an email from Julia Larkin, Vice President of the Chicago office of Cornerstone. Cornerstone is “a full-service, bipartisan, employee-owned consulting firm specializing in federal and state government relations, public affairs and strategic communications, and advisory services,” according to their website.

The subject line of the email reads, “Statement from Thorton [sic] Township Supervisor Tiffany Henyard.” The body of the email offered this statement as an explanation for the changed locks on Elston’s office door:

The Township is undergoing a routine reorganization of office space to better utilize the space for citizen services. We appreciate everyone’s patience as the reorganization takes place and as updated key fobs are distributed. Some access may be limited to the public in order to protect sensitive information during this time.

The Assessor’s office was moved as part of the larger effort to prioritize citizen services. All cabinets were moved as units with no individual files or items taken out of the cabinets. I am happy to provide photo documentation upon request related to the cabinets being moved without any items being removed or disturbed.

I appreciate the hard work our local media does, but I believe the residents of Thorton [sic] Township would be better served if the local media focused on news with substance, like Thorton [sic] Township being awarded the Government Finance Officers Association of the United States and Canada’s Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting, rather than a simple re-arrangement of office space.

The Lansing Journal reached out to Cornerstone regarding the “photo documentation,” but we have not yet received a reply.

We also contacted Supervisor Henyard directly for comment, but we have not yet received a reply.

Tiffany Henyard letter
Though this letter is written on Thornton Township stationery, Assessor Cassandra Elston’s name and position are not included among the other elected township officials. (Click the image to open the copy of the PDF we stored on The Lansing Journal website.)

Letter to Fox 32

Tiffany Henyard also published a “formal request to the leadership and staff at Fox 32 News Chicago to address its conflict of interest and continuous racial and misogynistic targeted coverage of myself, the Village of Dolton, Thornton Township, and all agencies I represent as a public official.”

Henyard went on to characterize Fox 32’s coverage as “a malicious smear campaign,” “false and defamatory accusations,” and “blatantly erroneous.”

The full letter is posted at thorntontownship.com/2023/06/07/from-the-desk-of-the-supervisor/, and the PDF can be downloaded from thorntontownship.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/res.pdf.

Staying informed

As of this writing, the next regular Thornton Township Board of Trustees meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 20, 2023. Meetings are held at 6 p.m. at Thornton Township Hall, 333 East 162nd Street, South Holland.

Related

The Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle is part of the Local News Alliance (LNA), a group of independent news organizations from the South Suburbs, including Harvey, Lansing and Park Forest. One of the ways Alliance members help each other is by sharing coverage of news that is relevant beyond our individual communities. We are grateful to our fellow LNA members — the Lansing Journal, the Harvey World Herald, eNews Park Forest and Southland Investigative Reporting Center — for allowing us to republish this article because of its relevance to Homewood.

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