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Thornton Township restricts media access at 2024 Annual Meeting

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Reporter’s note: I am telling this story in the first person because it is an account of what happened to me at the Thornton Township Annual Meeting on April 9. This is not an editorial, column, or opinion piece however. My intention is to simply report the facts as I saw them.

SOUTH HOLLAND, Ill. (April 11, 2024) – As I descended the staircase into the lower level of the Thornton Township headquarters at 333 E. 162nd Street, South Holland, I could see an arrangement of stanchions at the back of the room. They were linked by retractible vinyl belts, and the area was marked with a sign saying, “MEDIA.” A cameraman from one of the Chicago broadcast stations had set up his gear there, and others arrived later.

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Retractible-belt stanchions outlined an area in the back of the room designated for members of the media at Thornton Township’s 2024 Annual Meeting. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

Managing Editor Josh Bootsma soon joined me, as did our colleague Eric Crump from the Homewood-Flossmoor Chronicle. Josh had brought The Lansing Journal’s Nikon camera and zoom lens, which he set up on a tripod in the media area. I took my iPhone and headed to the front of the room to find a seat.

Before the meeting

The meeting was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., and I had arrived at 5:50. People throughout the room were quietly chatting, waiting for the call to order. I took my seat around 6:15 and made small talk with the people around me. I got up once to take a few photos of the setting.

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At 6:14 p.m., plenty of seats were available at the Thornton Township 2024 Annual Meeting. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
At 6:16 p.m., Supervisor Henyard’s chair, marked with a golden microphone, and the rest of the seats at the head table were empty. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

When I returned to my seat a gentleman approached me. He told me there was a section in the back of the room designated for media. I said I preferred to stay where I was.

Then an armed, muscled security guard in a black uniform and bullet-proof vest joined the other man and told me that media had to stay in the designated area. I asked him why.

“Those are the rules,” he said.

I asked him who had made those rules. He said he didn’t want to “go back and forth” with me, but there was a section in back designated for media.

“I’d rather sit here,” I said.

The security guard told me if I was going to sit there I would not be allowed to record anything.

During the meeting

When the meeting started at 6:32 p.m., I launched my notes app and began recording and occasionally taking pictures, as I do at almost every public meeting I attend. The man who had approached me before the meeting was seated in front of me.

Around 7:45 p.m., following the reading of the General Fund report, members of the public asked for clarification of certain expenditures. Finance Director Robert Hunt said he could provide it. Discussion began about whether voting to approve the report could be postponed until those details were provided. Motions were made and seconded and rescinded.

As I leaned forward to take photos of the meeting officials trying to navigate through the ensuing confusion, the man sitting in front of me noticed and said, “Ma’am, you can’t record if you’re media.”

“I can take pictures,” I replied.

“You’re not taking pictures,” he said, seeming to think I was shooting video. “And media’s back there,” gesturing to the back of the room.

“I’m taking pictures,” I said.

“Well, you’re media,” he said, “And media should be back there, not here.”

“I can be here,” I said.

“You can’t be here,” he insisted.

“I can,” I said.

When I tried to continue taking photos of the proceedings, the man raised his arm in front of my camera to block the shot. I tried angling above or below his extended arm, but he kept moving to block my shot.

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Interference affected the quality of my photography during a point of confusion in the meeting. From left: Meeting Moderator Stephanie Wiedeman, Township Clerk Loretta Wells, Township Supervisor Tiffany Henyard, and Senior Counsel Tiffany Nelson-Jaworski try to bring clarity to the discussion around the General Fund report. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

I pulled the man’s arm down in order to take my next photo. He yanked his arm away and in doing so knocked my camera to the ground. This caused a commotion, and the Meeting Moderator called security to intervene, mistakenly believing that I had been hit. (I had not.)

Two security guards arrived at the front along with Keith Freeman, Senior Advisor to Supervisor Henyard. Other people also gathered to find out what was happening and ask if I was ok. (I was.) The man explained his actions by saying, “She’s supposed to be in the back. She’s media.”

After things settled down, the meeting continued. Around 8:30 p.m., the man in front of me again began blocking my photos, placing his notebook in front of my camera as I framed the front table to get photos of the officials seated there.

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The man seated in front of me used his notebook to prevent me from taking photos of the elected officials conducting the public meeting proceedings. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

After the meeting

I got home from the meeting after 10 p.m. and reached out to my Local Independent Online News (LION) cohort for input on the experience. They confirmed that in their experience, having a designated media area is a way to enhance media access, not restrict it. Several noted that in public meetings with a designated media area, press members are free to use it or not. Some use it as a base where they leave their equipment while walking around the room taking photos and notes. None of the journalists in that online conversation had ever been sequestered in a designated media area.

The next day I sent an email summarizing my experience to Teresa Lim, Supervising Attorney in the Public Access Bureau, which is the section of the Illinois Attorney General’s office that deals with violations of the Open Meetings Act (OMA).

The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to allow the public to be informed about their government. The opening section of the Act reads:

(5 ILCS 120/1) (from Ch. 102, par. 41)
Sec. 1. Policy. It is the public policy of this State that public bodies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and that the people have a right to be informed as to the conduct of their business. In order that the people shall be informed, the General Assembly finds and declares that it is the intent of this Act to ensure that the actions of public bodies be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.
The General Assembly further declares it to be the public policy of this State that its citizens shall be given advance notice of and the right to attend all meetings at which any business of a public body is discussed or acted upon in any way. …

The Open Meetings Act specifically addresses recording public meetings:

(5 ILCS 120/2.05) (from Ch. 102, par. 42.05)
Sec. 2.05. Recording meetings. Subject to the provisions of Section 8-701 of the Code of Civil Procedure, any person may record the proceedings at meetings required to be open by this Act by tape, film or other means. The authority holding the meeting shall prescribe reasonable rules to govern the right to make such recordings.

In my email to Supervising Attorney Kim, I suggested that what had happened at the Thornton Township Annual Meeting was a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Ms. Kim replied the next morning and explained, “OMA applies to meetings of public bodies and actions that are taken by the public body as a whole. In general, OMA doesn’t apply to individuals who are not members of the public body. If [the gentleman who blocked you] is not a trustee of the Thornton Township board, then we unfortunately are not able to take a look at the matter because it would not appear to be an OMA issue.”

Next steps

I sent a reply to Ms. Kim to ask if the armed security guard’s interactions with me and other members of the media would be considered an OMA violation. I believe (but have not verified) the guard is paid with township funds. I believe (but have not verified) he is enforcing “rules” put in place by elected officials. If the purpose of those rules is to sequester media in a designated area in order to limit access and ability to record the proceedings, that seems to be an OMA violation.

Ms. Kim did reply to my question two hours later: “I will have our support staff create a new Request for Review for you so that we can formally review the matter.”

I’ll report on the results of that review whenever they become available.

Thornton Township headquarters are located at 333 E. 162nd Street in South Holland, Illinois.

The Office of the Illinois Attorney General is located at 115 South LaSalle Street, Chicago, Illinois.


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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.

6 COMMENTS

  1. We anxiously await the results of your appeal. You were too nice, given the rights you know you have as a journalist and the rights we all have through the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which have been violated repeatedly by the current Mayor of Dolton and Thornton Township Supervisor. I was present at Tuesday’s meeting and saw that you were sitting behind two Thornton Township administrators who draw significant salaries, one of whom quickly walked to the back of the room when the moderator announced that a woman was hit. At the same time Dolton’s Village Administrator, and the Senior Advisor to the Supervisor in Thornton Township came forward to ask the security guard not to de-escalate. Our tax dollars pay the salaries of three unnamed Thornton Township administrators present who were a all few feet away from you, hoping that you would not make a scene for the violation of your rights as a journalist. Please let your concerned readers know privately if there is anything we can do to help. You know we will tell you privately what we really think, and you are too professional to publish our rants here.

    • Paul Robertz, I want to thank you for being at the meeting and asking such pointed questions during the various opportunities for public comment. (We plan to publish additional articles about the content of the meeting.) That kind of citizen engagement is what our community needs. Please keep up the good work you are doing, and please invite others to join you. Share with them what you’ve learned and how you learned it. Media have an important role to play, but it is citizens who must take action on the information we provide.

  2. Thank you for standing up to these people. I was watching a livestream of the meeting by “The Real Late Night Crew”. I assume the videographer was standing in the media section. One of those security guards stationed himself right in front of the camera and did everything he could to obscure the view. Not sure what the purpose of this behavior was, since the audio was still on, but it was very odd to witness this. This guard did hurry up to the front when your incident occurred, although I wasn’t aware it was you that was involved at the time. Thank you for keeping us informed.

  3. I thought your readers would be interested in knowing how the Bloom Township Annual Meeting differed from what happened at Thornton’s, remembering that five Lansing precincts on the south end of the Village are in Bloom. I attended it on the same evening. The 29-residents in attendance voted for a moderator of the meeting by a show of hands and all Township business that followed were voted on in the same manner. Most importantly public comments were accepted and respected. During the New Business part of the agenda, I was recognized.to make public comment. I gave a 10-minite presentation about my book, The Village of Lansing and its Airport Past Present Future. I told them the book lays a clear path for the Township to follow to improve the future economic climate on the Southland, and offered my services to explain the necessary steps that would have to be taken. The main word that I took from the meet was professionalism.

  4. Dear Melanie / Lansing Journal: Thank you for your reporting, and for your courage in standing your ground as a citizen and especially as a member of the press. You have every right to be present, to sit where you wish, and to NOT be intimidated or blocked from the proceedings.

    This national laughingstock of a public official is about to receive her comeuppance- it won’t be a moment too soon! I hope that you consult more lawyers and press your case with legal authorities or with a lawsuit.

    Tom Shepherd
    Former Thornton Township Trustee

  5. Interesting interaction. As our liberties continue to be restricted, I am interested in further explanation of your appeal.

Comments are closed.