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Three-month recap: Township-level politics get complicated following Zuccarelli death

It was March 3 when Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard was appointed Thornton Township Supervisor

By Melanie Jongsma

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (June 3, 2022) – The January 3 death of long-time Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli set in motion a series of political maneuverings that resulted in Tiffany Henyard — who also serves as Mayor of Dolton — being appointed as Zuccarelli’s replacement. About four-fifths of Lansing is in Thornton Township, with the remainder in Bloom.

A process marked by indecision

According to state election law the Thornton Township board had 60 days to appoint a replacement to complete Zuccarelli’s term. The main contenders for the appointment were widely believed to be Trustee Joyce Washington — because of her lengthy tenure and status as Interim Supervisor — and Trustee Jerry Jones. Thornton Township Assessor Cassandra Elston was another possible appointment. Elston said that Zuccarelli’s intention was for her to succeed him, though he never documented his wishes.

At a March 1 board meeting, trustees spent three and a half hours voicing nominations, stalemating votes, retreating to closed-door sessions, and emerging only to deadlock again. At 10:25 p.m., Interim Supervisor Washington announced the meeting would recess and reconvene on Thursday, March 3, at 10:30 p.m. As then-Township Attorney Stanley Kusper explained, “A meeting requires 48 hours notice, and 48 hours from now is [10:30 p.m. Thursday].” The board would then have 90 minutes to arrive at a decision before the midnight expiration of their 60 days. If trustees could not agree on an appointment, a special township meeting would be called, and township electors would choose a Supervisor.

A last-minute nomination

The March 3 special meeting began at 10:55 p.m., and in spite of the late hour, approximately 50 observers gathered in the basement of Thornton Township headquarters. Following the roll call and Pledge of Allegiance, trustees went directly into closed session. They returned at 11:14 p.m., and Clerk Loretta Wells called for nominations. What followed was a series of nominations, votes, and abstentions that included Jones, Washington, Elston, ZAP Director Stanley Brown, Terry Wells (mayor of Phoenix, IL, and husband of Township Clerk Loretta Wells), Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris, and, at 11:48 p.m., Tiffany Henyard. The motion to nominate Henyard was made by Trustee Christopher Gonzalez, and Henyard was voted and sworn in minutes before midnight.

Though the name seemed random to many in the audience, Washington said after the meeting that Henyard had applied for the position “some time ago.”

Gonzalez said he didn’t want the Supervisor decision to be made by township electors. Though he had nominated Elston more than once and would have preferred her appointment to the role, with time running out he nominated Henyard, believing a majority of the board would set aside their divisions and accept her before the midnight deadline.

Controversies and suits

Henyard was elected as Dolton’s mayor in the April 6, 2021, election. In her first year on the job, she has been involved in multiple controversies, including the hiring of an inspector who is a sex offender, spending taxpayer money without board approval, and using Dolton police officers for personal security. At an April 4 meeting, a majority of Dolton trustees voted to file lawsuits against her.

“It’s sad that we have to get to this point, that we have to go through court proceedings, as it’s costing the Village money because of the negligence that leadership has [shown],” Dolton Trustee Kiana Belcher said, adding that Henyard “constantly violate[s] ordinances that have been put in place.”

Four lawsuits

The Dolton Village Board consists of six trustees — Belcher, Jason House, Brittney Norwood, Edward Steave, Tammie Brown, and Andrew Holmes. All but Holmes voted to file the following lawsuits:

  1. Quo Warranto, a process of questioning whether or not Henyard has a legal right to be both Thornton Township Supervisor and Mayor of Dolton, a municipality that is within the bounds of Thornton Township. “I believe that’s a conflict of interest,” said Trustee House.
  2. Lack of approval for hiring and firing. Trustee House told The Lansing Journal that the Dolton Board passed an ordinance in 2021 stating any staff hirings or terminations were subject to the “advice and consent” of Trustees. “At this time, the Mayor has hired at least eight people, and terminated one person that we know of, without the advice and consent of the Board,” House said.
  3. Violation of the Freedom of Information Act. The Dolton Clerk’s Office is responsible for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, but Clerk Alison Key explained that department heads and the Village administration have ignored her requests for information. “The FOIAs are not being taken seriously,” Key said at the April 4 meeting. “Staff are being told not to comply with any FOIAs requested of them by the Clerk’s Office.”
  4. Spending without board approval. “We don’t know what’s being spent right now with Village and taxpayer money,” said Trustee Steave. Board members estimate that Henyard has paid bills totaling $2 million without their review or approval.

In addition, a previous lawsuit is in place – personal security funding. Trustee House also said the Dolton Board had expressed concerns regarding Henyard’s “security detail,” which the board believes is being funded by Dolton taxpayers. House said the board asked Henyard to justify her need for such security. At an October 2021 Board meeting, Henyard said, “I’m a single mom with a two-year-old daughter. For you to even think about removing something like that from myself that’s given to everyone in the nation — as it relates to when you’re in politics — it comes with the title. It ain’t nothing I just made up.” Because they didn’t receive adequate justification and transparency regarding the expense, the board filed this lawsuit in January.

Recall vote

The matter of Henyard’s mayorship will come before the Dolton public on June 28 in the form of a referendum for recall. Voters will have an option to vote yes for recall and then yes specifically to recall Henyard as mayor. “Ultimately, it comes down to a vote, which I feel is appropriate,” said House. “The residents get the opportunity to make a vote on June 28 whether or not they are comfortable with the leadership and the direction.”

Early voting began May 19.

Henyard has not replied to requests from The Lansing Journal for comment.

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Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma
Melanie Jongsma grew up in Lansing, Illinois, and believes The Lansing Journal has an important role to play in building community through trustworthy information.