Trustee Gonzales lone dissenting vote
LANSING, Ill. (June 20, 2023) — The Thornton Township Board of Trustees passed a motion Tuesday night to declare Township Assessor Cassandra Elston “absent from her duties,” and order her to return to her office.
The vote saw Trustees Darlene Gray-Everett, Jerry Jones, and Carmen Carlisle, as well as Supervisor Tiffany Henyard, support the motion. Trustee Christopher Gonzales voted against, citing the fact that Elston — an elected official — has been unable to access her office for two weeks.
The motion read:
“Motion to Declare the Thornton Township Assessor Absent from his/her Duties and to Order he/she [sic] to Return to the Assessors [sic] Designated Office located at the South Holland Thornton Township Office Building located at 333 E 162nd St., South Holland, IL 60473”
Locked out, relocated
Henyard said that, contrary to what the “fake news” has reported — assumedly referring to reports from FOX 32, The Daily Southtown, and The Lansing Journal about Assessor Elston being unable to access her office — “no one has been locked out of their office.”
Despite Henyard’s accusations, Assessor Cassandra Elston confirmed that since June 6, each time she’s come into the Township building her key no longer fits her office door due to a change in the lock.
During the meeting Henyard asked her advisor Keith Freeman to help explain the situation.
Freeman said, in part, “Supervisor Henyard in no way removed the Assessor from her office. The Assessor has access to the Assessor’s office. … She has a key fob that gets her in the office. Her office was relocated to an area so that we can take care of some business in her office area. She did not call and ask us why she was being relocated. … There were no files left out, all of the files were locked up.”
According to Elston, she was not told about the relocation before it happened. A cubicle in the Assessor’s larger common area was given to her as a replacement office, but some of the important items and documents from her original office were missing, and some were not handled securely during the move. According to Elston, some potentially-sensitive files were placed on a table in the common area — which Lansing Journal reporters saw — and were not placed there by her staff.
In response to Freeman’s assertion that Elston did not reach out regarding the relocation, Trustee Gonzalez asked Freeman to confirm that he’d not received any communications from Elston in the last two weeks.
Freeman said, “I didn’t receive anything from the Assessor.”
Elston provided The Lansing Journal with the text of an email she sent to Keith Freeman a few days after she found her office door locked. The email says:
Good morning. This is Cassandra. I see my office area has been relocated. Why was I not informed? Was there a specific reason for the move, important files containing residents’ sensitve information has been placed over the support staff area. Please advise. Thank you.
She also showed The Lansing Journal a text sent to Freeman to the same effect.
According to the Township Officials of Illinois’s Laws and Duties Handbook, “The township board shall provide the office and storage space, equipment, office supplies, deputies and clerical and stenographic personnel, and other items as necessary for the efficient operation of the office.”
“I don’t know. This is a waste of time and energy,” Elston told The Lansing Journal. “Let’s be adults here. We were elected to serve the people of Thornton Township. All of this extra garbage? No.”
Henyard and Freeman both made a point of challenging the Assessor’s right to conduct business outside of township headquarters.
“It has been brought to my attention that there is an office that has been set up as the Assessor’s office in Calumet City,” Freeman said. “I informed the Supervisor and I informed our attorneys. That’s why this motion is being placed on the agenda. It is up to the board to decide whether or not the Assessor … can operate outside of the normal facilities and/or buildings.”
“[People] need to be here and be present to do their jobs. The Assessor has been missing. The Assessor thinks it’s OK for her to go and have another office in another building which is not in her preview [sic] to do,” said Henyard.
Elston told The Lansing Journal that her job is part time, 20 hours per week. Even under normal circumstances, much of her work takes place away from the township building — meeting with local mayors, visiting various senior groups to explain tax breaks and property assessments, and traveling throughout Thornton Township to meet with taxpayers who otherwise might not be able to speak with her.
“Sometimes there are different meetings with senior groups that meet earlier during the day,” Elston said. “I’ll go and explain the tax process to them. Right now I’m going to different areas because the exemption forms were mailed out from the Cook County Assessor’s Office for the taxpayers to fill out, and normally when that happens, I visit various senior organizations, housing, or wherever they ask me to come to, to make sure they’ve gotten their paperwork and help them fill it out.”
Some of Elston’s meetings with residents, however, call for the privacy of a closed-door office — a basic need that she’s been without for two weeks. During that time, she estimated she’s met with five people to discuss private information at City Hall in Calumet City.
“I’ve been working from home. I’ve been at City Hall in Calumet City a lot. When taxpayers want to meet one-on-one, they’ll come up with a spot, and we’ll just meet there,” she said.
When asked for her thoughts on the motion, Elston directed her comments at Supervisor Tiffany Henyard, saying, “You pretty much put me out of my office, and now you want to say that I’m absent, when you really don’t know who I report to, or my job, what it entails. So I’m confused here.”
An attempt to clarify the Assessor’s right to work outside of the office was requested by Gonzales Tuesday night, a request that was directed to the Township’s attorney.
The attorney said, in part, “I have not done a complete comprehensive legal review of this matter, but the corporate authorities of the Township are the only individuals, operating as a board, that have the power to rent, lease, own, or purchase real or personal property.”
He also said, “The second issue is the importance of any records that are used or created or retained by the Assessor are official Thornton Township records that need to be housed at an official Thornton facility such as this office. So those are two main reasons the Assessor would be limited as far as the need to operate out of township facilities.”
Understanding the Assessor’s role
Elston’s elected position entails educating and assisting the residents of Thornton Township in the tax process.
“I help them with their exemptions, to let them know if there are exemptions out there that they might qualify for. … I talk to them about the tax deferral program that’s through the treasurer’s office. We have a number of meetings every three years when there’s a reassessment,” Elston explained.
She also teaches classes on “Property after Death,” and she facilitates a first-time home buyer program.
“So virtually, anything that we feel is going to help the taxpayer, that’s what we do.”
The Assessor does not report to the Township Supervisor. Both roles are elected offices, and neither is subordinate to the other. Similarly, the Township Trustees don’t report to the Supervisor. Ultimately, all of the elected officials in Thornton Township report only to the voters.
“It’s good if we can work together,” Elston said. “That would be good. But as far as reporting to her, no.”
The Illinois Tax Code (35 ILCS 200/2-20) says, in part:
“The powers and duties of a multi-township board of trustees or township board of trustees concerning property tax assessment administration shall be limited to the following: (1) levying taxes necessary to provide the funds required by the budget adopted for the township or multi-township assessor and certifying the levy to the county clerk, (2) determining and approving the budget of the assessor, (3) determining a salary for the assessor, and (4) setting the compensation of any assessor or temporarily appointed because the assessor is physically incapacitated, according to Section 60-5 of the Township Code. … The board shall have no power to approve or disapprove personnel of the multi-township or township assessor.
The Illinois code states that the Township Board and Supervisor has oversight over the Assessor’s Office only in a few specific areas. In other words, the board’s capacity to “order” an assessor to return to work in a specific place is limited.
More information about the Thornton Township Assessor’s Office is available here.