Tinley Park, IL. (ECWd) -
On 2/4/16, the Village of Tinley Park held a Planning Commission meeting where its Planning Director, Amy Connolly, refused to speak or answer the public’s questions. Earlier this week, we covered the breaking scandal in this southwestern Chicago suburb where it has so far been revealed that zoning code was changed in a sneaky and underhanded way without proper Board oversight or scrutiny to allow a low income housing project to be fast tracked in what was supposed to be a high-end mixed use commercial/condo development. Now, it appears evidence is being found that documents were faked and fraud was potentially committed by Village employees to improperly push forward a project that should have never been given the green light under existing Village code. You can read our initial coverage here.
You can watch video from the explosive Planning Commission meeting on 2/4/16 here where all hell broke loose and Mayor David Seaman and several Village Board members, including outspoken Trustee Jacob “Jake” Vandenberg, tried to appease angry homeowners by promising to investigate the conduct of Village employees in regards to the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation and the fast-tracking of the low income housing project it wants to build in Tinley Park against local homeowners’ vociferous objections:
This Planning Commission meeting was a great victory for local government watchdogs and a great day for liberty and democracy in Illinois. Over 1,000 concerned Tinley Park citizens mobilized on 2/4/16 to voice their outrage over Amy Connolly’s behavior as Planning Director and to demand that Connolly fess up and explain why an Ohio low income housing developer was seemingly allowed to push through a neighborhood-changing project with lightning speed in a suburb where ordinary residents are not allowed to so much as erect a simple fence or remodel their garage without multiple personal appearances before the planning commission and mountains of paperwork. A well-organized citizen social media group called Citizens of Tinley Park (https://www.facebook.com/groups/196478400706914/) spread the word that Buckeye was given special treatment by Connolly and that statements the Village had made about the housing projects didn’t hold water and were easily contradicted or refuted, evidencing a shocking amount of deception, obfuscation, or outright lying by Village employees.
Members of the group crowd-sourced review of documents that contradicted statements that Connolly had made at the 2/2/16 Village meeting…and this team effort revealed that Connolly had corresponded with Buckeye about zoning changes being made which would allow the low income housing project to slip through (unnoticed by residents since Buckeye would never be made to come before the Planning Commission or Village Board the way that ordinary citizens are forced to endure a Spanish Inquisition any time they want to build so much as a vegetable garden on their own plots of land in Tinley Park).
Village Trustee Vandenberg delivered a barn-burning speech that captured the anger of Tinley Park residents in the room. He called for an independent investigation of Connolly’s conduct and actions after poring over more than 2,500 documents between 2/2/16 and 2/4/16 and coming across evidence that Connolly and other Village employees were engaging in deceit and possibly fraud to grease the wheels for Buckeye. Specifically, Vandenberg spoke about Connolly claiming she had CC-ed him on emails about the low income housing project in the past, but Vandenberg received no such emails and the Village’s IT department, on Vandenberg’s request, could find no evidence of Connolly actually sending such emails to Vandenberg. It appears that the documents in question may have been fabricated by Connolly or others and backdated after the fact or otherwise tampered with, since the IT department could not uncover any actual evidence of these documents existing prior to 2/1/16 when Connolly made her claim that she had sent them months earlier.
Vandenberg railed against the Village for violating the public’s trust. He was joined by Mayor Seaman in calling for an independent investigator to be hired to determine who was responsible for the mess and how much wrongdoing was involved with hiding the zoning changes in a large pork barrel Board vote that obfuscated the removing of any obstacles to the low income housing project being built on a plot of land called “The Reserve” that Tinley Park residents were long promised would only be developed as a high-end mix of ground level commercial business with tax-generating condos above it (not a low income housing project with no commercial space that would bring the Village only $60,000/year in taxes).
Several new concerns were raised at the 2/4/16 meeting that indicate we may only know the tip of the iceberg in terms of the fraud that could have potentially been committed to benefit Buckeye. There is certainly a lot of smoke intimating that there could be a roaring fire waiting to be discovered by investigators, involving issues such as:
1. Amy Connolly is on record stating that the low income housing project would generate $60,000 in residential taxes a year…but at the 2/2/16 meeting, David Petroni from Buckeye Community Home Foundation stated the housing project would produce $80,000/year in taxes for the Village. At the 2/4/16 Planning Commission meeting, Village employees refused to answer questions about this discrepancy, passing the buck and claiming no one knew for sure what the number was.
2. Connolly very controversially refused to speak all evening, despite being the Planning Director. She was directly asked by numerous Tinley Park residents to explain discrepancies, inconsistencies, and what appeared to be outright lies found in documents she authored or statements she made to the public in the past, but Connolly sat smugly at her table and would barely even look at the public, let alone speak. One angry resident asked if she had fallen mute.
3. Several real estate agents were present at the Planning Commission meeting who raised questions about statements that Connolly and the Village Manager had made about the parcel of land in dispute, commonly known as “The Reserve.” The public was told this land was “on contract” by Buckeye, which seemed to be part of Buckeye’s perceived threat on 2/2/16 that it would incur damages and would file a lawsuit against the Village if it was not allowed to go through with the low income housing project it demanded to build on The Reserve. But the real estate agents said that the MLS (real estate property listing system) showed that “The Reserve” property was not on contract with anyone.
4. Testimony was made about how little sense it makes to put a low income housing project on The Reserve, which has none of the necessities that low income families would need to survive and thrive in that area. The Reserve is located in what is commonly called a “food desert,” where there is no grocery store, convenient store, or other food source for miles. It is not possible to walk to a train station anywhere near the Reserve and there is just one PACE bus that services the area, making infrequent stops. Since Buckeye planned to only provide one parking space per unit of the low income housing project, how are potential residents of such a development expected to get to work, find food, or survive? Where would cars be parked after the one spot per unit space was filled? The Village admitted that no traffic study was ever done, despite the fact that such a housing project would dramatically alter the traffic patterns of the area. Over the course of the evening, it became resoundingly clear that Village employees and Trustees put little thought into the implications of building a low income housing project on The Reserve. So the question was asked again and again why this project was seemingly pushed through so aggressively by Amy Connolly?
5. One of the most shocking allegations that arose at the Planning Commission involved paperwork that Buckeye allegedly submitted to the state’s Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) office in application to pursue the low income housing project that Buckeye intends to force on the residents of Tinley Park. During the 2/4/16 meeting, it was revealed by a speaker that Buckeye stated on the H.U.D. paperwork that there would be NO COMMERCIAL space in “The Reserve” housing project it insisted on building. This contradicts what Buckeye representative David Petroni stated at the 2/2/16 Village Board meeting, where he claimed that commercial space would indeed be part of the housing project (even though Buckeye was making the threadbare claim that the housing project’s rental and administrative offices were considered “commercial space”…as well as the housing projects laundry room, which would be on the ground floor and would presumably take quarters for washing and drying that Buckeye was allegedly implying would constitute “commerce” in some way).
Remember that the root of this whole scandal is the fact that Tinley Park had zoned the plot of land known as “The Reserve” to be a mix of high-end commercial space and condos…but here it is alleged that Petroni’s claims of considering a rental office and laundry facilities to be “commercial” (or “commercial enough” as the case may be) are contradicted by what Buckeye wrote in its application to H.U.D. Statements that Amy Connolly and other Village employees have made about the low income housing project containing commercial space of any kind are also full of contradictions, obfuscations, and seemingly outright lies.
The impression was given that the zoning code was circumvented, evaded, twisted, and tortured in Byzantine and convoluted ways to give Petroni and Buckeye whatever they wanted, regardless of what was best for the Tinley Park community. The question flashing in big neon lights in front of all attendees of the Planning Commission meeting was: Why did all this happen and why can’t the people involved keep their story straight from one document to another along the timeline?
6. The law firm Klein Thorpe Jenkins represents the Village of Tinley Park. At the 2/4/16 meeting, KTJ sent attorney Thomas Melody to sit with the Planning Commission members and advise them during the meeting. Melody attempted to silence and censor public comment by claiming that the public did not need to speak. He was shouted down by members of the public in attendance who advised him that the Open Meetings Act requires public comment at every public meeting. Melody and the Chair of the Planning Commission tried to whisper back and forth and make the claim that they could do without public comment, but thankfully Tinley Park residents knew their rights under the OMA and did not allow Melody to silence them.
Thomas Melody also sat there as the Village required people wishing to speak to state their names and addresses before being allowed to talk, which is also a violation of the Open Meetings Act (and a violation of basic civil rights, as the First Amendment does not allow a government body to make you state your name, address, or other information before allowing you to address a government body). The Village of Tinley Park had no less than three armed police officers stationed around the room, which further added to an atmosphere of intimidation for the public. When three armed cops are standing there and the Village’s attorney from Klein Thorpe Jenkins is sitting next to the Commission Chair and people are told to state their names and addresses before speaking and then sign a document that a Village staffer shoves in their face after they speak, people feel intimidated and fear for what will happen to them (or what those cops will do to them) if they don’t comply. None of this is allowed under the Open Meetings Act or the United States Constitution and First Amendment.
The people of Tinley Park are an impressive lot: they held their ground and kept demanding answers, despite Amy Connolly refusing to explain herself and other Village employees passing the buck and singing the same song of “You have to talk to someone else about that.” The buck can only be passed around so long in situations like this, until the music stops in this game of bureaucratic musical chairs and someone’s left standing (and holding the bag). At this point, no less than Mayor Seaman and at least three Village Trustees have now publicly stated that an investigation into impropriety, fraud, and deceitful actions committed by Village employees in the matter of this low income housing project is warranted and that an Investigator will be hired. The Mayor also called for a Citizen Review Committee to be immediately formed, which would allow selected representatives of the public to assist with the investigation and in uncovering the truth of what went down behind the scenes regarding Buckeye and the proposed Reserve development.
The public demanded that the Mayor immediately appoint that Committee and get to work, and to his credit the Mayor returned to the Planning Commission meeting and named Matt Coughlin, the Citizens of Tinley Park Facebook group spokesman, to be a member of that oversight group, along with other respected community activists and trusted leaders. Attendees of the meeting cheered for these appointments, knowing that the people selected were honest and informed and would diligently report back to the public their findings as the investigation into Amy Connolly’s conduct proceeds.
It must be noted that the Village of Tinley Park provided overflow rooms and live-streaming via video so that as many as possible of the 1,000 people who came out for the Planning Commission meeting could participate; parking lots were jammed and satellite lots had to be found for all the cars. After Thomas Melody was shouted down and the scheme to try to silence the public in violation of the OMA was shot down, anyone who wanted to speak was allowed to speak and after they were told to stop demanding people state their addresses if they wanted to speak, the Village actually stopped doing that.
It’s sad that we need to point out how great it was that the Village actually stopped doing illegal things when told to stop, but this is Illinois and it is unusual to see a public body embrace the public’s right to be heard in the way that the Village of Tinley Park did on 2/4/16. Not only were people allowed to speak, but the Mayor showed that he was listening by immediately appointing that Citizens’ Oversight Committee and vowing to hire an Investigator to get to the bottom of the wrongdoing that has been uncovered thus far.
In a stark contrast to how he behaved on 2/2/16 when he was perceived as threatening lawsuits and impugning the character of Tinley Park residents who opposed his low income housing project, David Petroni from Buckeye Community Hope Foundation didn’t say a word on 2/4/16 and just sat in his chair throughout the meeting.
There is a good chance that both Petroni and Amy Connolly decided to keep their mouths tightly shut on 2/4/16 and make no public statements since Mayor Seaman and Trustee Vandenberg announced the launch of a formal investigation. At some point, it seems likely that both of them will be compelled to break their silence when put under oath about their involvement in whatever’s really been happening behind the scenes with this low income housing project that nobody wants (or seemingly truly needs) in Tinley Park.
(Photo posted to the Citizens of Tinley Park Facebook group showing the 2,500 pages of documents that Trustee Jake Vandenberg reviewed prior to the 2/4/16 meeting that convinced him enough duplicity and contradicting information was present to warrant a formal independent investigation into wrongdoing by Amy Connolly and other Village employees pertaining to the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation low income housing project scandal that is rocking Tinley Park.)