Local News, Local News Alliance

Public denied access to Thornton Township Board meeting

By Josh Bootsma
The Lansing Journal
Originally published Feb. 14, 2024

The February 13 meeting of the Thornton Township Board of Trustees lasted four minutes. But the public was not allowed to witness it.

A man at township headquarters wearing a black sweatshirt that read “SECURITY” directed members of the public to the basement of the building, even though the meeting was being held in the upstairs board room.

When asked why the board room — which typically has at least a dozen chairs available for the public and media — was unavailable, the man said, “You can have a seat downstairs, you’ll be able to see the meeting. The meeting will go on.”

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At 6:11 p.m., a faint audio feed of the upstairs meeting could be heard coming from the downstairs speakers. The feed was just clear enough to determine that Supervisor Tiffany Henyard was speaking, but not loud or clear enough for the public to follow what was happening. The audio feed lasted no longer than 30 seconds before it cut out completely.


What the law says about public access and public comment

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the board meetings of public bodies such as Thornton Township, “shall be held at specified times and places which are convenient and open to the public.” (5 ILCS 120/2.01)

While members of the public were allowed into Thornton Township headquarters, they were denied access to the location where the board meeting was happening — effectively closing off the meeting to the public.

Stephanie Wiedeman, a former Township staffer and outspoken critic of the Henyard Administration, asked how she might make a public comment at the meeting. She was told someone would come downstairs to receive public comments.

No one followed through on that promise, meaning members of the public had no chance to speak to township leaders.

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, “Any person shall be permitted an opportunity to address public officials under the rules established and recorded by the public body.” (5 ILCS 120/2.06(g))

Neither Supervisor Henyard nor township special advisor Keith Freeman replied to The Lansing Journal’s request for comment on the inaccessibility of Tuesday’s meeting.


What happened at the meeting?

According to Township Trustee Chris Gonzalez, the meeting was four minutes long and the trustees voted on two items, in addition to approving the minutes from December 19, 2023.

Gonzalez said he wasn’t let into the board room until 6 p.m., the time the meeting was scheduled to start.

“Somebody was told that I wouldn’t be allowed in until administration came into the room because they were afraid that I was bringing media with me. Which, obviously, not the case, but that’s what I was told,” Gonzalez said.

Trustee Chris Gonzalez during a township meeting in 2023. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Gonzalez said the board approved two months’ worth of bills, though he voted against the motion.

“I’m given bills literally when I sit down, so obviously I — having not been able to go through them — I vote no,” Gonzalez said.

The second item voted on Tuesday night was an ordinance related to Illinois’ Paid Leave for All Workers Act. The item passed unanimously, Gonzalez said.

The other trustees on the board are Jerry Jones, Darlene Gray Everett, and Carmen Carlisle. Supervisor Henyard also votes on resolutions.


Resident thoughts

Elizabeth Jenkins is a Thornton Township resident and came to the meeting with her daughter to understand what Township meetings are like.

“I came because of what I’ve seen on [Channel] 9, and Fox, and the internet,” Jenkins said after the public was told the meeting upstairs had ended. “I’m just a little pissed off, I really am. I just wanted to see if this was a clown show like it’s been said. … It doesn’t make any difference who you are, if you’re not doing your job and doing what you’re supposed to do, then you don’t deserve the job.”

Jenkins made special note of the Million Dollar Giveaway, which the Township opened to the public in early February for rent and mortgage assistance.

“This million dollars, it’s not hers. That’s General Assistance money for people who need help. I don’t know why she thinks she’s the one that’s just giving it away,” Jenkins said.


Next meeting

On the Thornton Township website, Tuesday, February 27 is the next scheduled board meeting. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6 p.m. at Thornton Township headquarters, located at 333 E. 162nd Street in South Holland.

Related

Fox 32 Chicago sent Dane Placko to Thornton Township headquarters the day after the meeting. He interviewed Thornton Township residents Stephanie Wiedeman and Paul Robertz as well as Lansing Journal Managing Editor Josh Bootsma:

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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