I love happy endings.
Amy Connolly, who did some really great work in Howell over a decade ago, got a great, big one after nearly three years of “tar and feathering” over an affordable-housing project in a Chicago suburb.
If you, like me, were fortunate enough to know Connolly during her time in Howell, you know how smart and talented she is.
If you didn’t know Connolly back then, here’s a little background: She came to town in 2003 as Howell’s Downtown Development Authority director. In 2005, she also became the city’s Community Development director. In just four years, Connolly laid the foundation for much of what the city is today. Among her accomplishments: helping get the Howell Main Street program off the ground.
“I am proud of the teamwork creating that program,” Connolly said. “It’s had unbelievable success.”
Success, indeed. The program nabbed the prestigious Great American Main Street Award this year.
When Connolly left Howell in 2007, it was for a bigger job in a bigger town as planning director for Tinley Park, Ill., population 79,000, located just outside Chicago.
It is there that this particular story begins, one that includes federal lawsuits; investigations by the departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development; angry mobs of people bullying their elected officials; tapes of closed-door meetings; death threats; racist social media posts and public comments; breathless coverage by watchdogs; municipal legal bills totaling over $2 million; a suit against Connolly by Tinley Park; and settlements totaling nearly $3 million.
All of this over “The Reserve,” a 47-unit affordable-housing project that was proposed for Tinley Park.
It’s also a project that could easily be included in a municipal-planning textbook in the future.
In her position as Tinley Park’s planning director, Connolly shepherded the project through all the proper channels, and it received initial support from Tinley Park’s Plan Commission.
Then, after a story about the project in the Chicago Tribune referred to it as being “affordable” housing, all hell broke loose in a classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) backlash.
“Within two weeks, the Village Hall was packed with hundreds of angry residents demanding to know WHO was responsible for putting THOSE people in THEIR town,” Connolly said. “It was ugly. And within days, the blame for this landed on me.”
Accused of single-handedly changing the zoning code to allow multiple family development, colluding with the developer, and scheming against her employer, Connolly was put on paid leave by Tinley Park in February 2016.
One person posted over 30 YouTube videos about Connolly “tampering” with Tinley Park’s zoning code.
“Tinley Park officials called for a criminal investigation,” Connolly said.
Enter the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, which turned up no wrong-doing.
Connolly described the social media reaction as “brutal.”
A “Citizens of Tinley Park” Facebook page was created.
“There were death threats against me, threats to beat me up if I was ever outside my home,” Connolly said. “Kids would tell my children that their mom was a criminal and going to jail.”
Someone even posted pictures of Connolly’s house.
“It was a modern-day tar-and-feathering,” Connolly said.
Tinley Park officials tabled action on The Reserve in February 2016, never to take up the project for approval again.
Connolly found a “great job” in Racine, resigned from Tinley Park, and moved.
The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Tinley Park in November 2016, alleging officials violated the federal Fair Housing Act for refusing to approve plans for The Reserve, as well as bowing to racist social media posts and comments at public meetings.
Connolly got herself an attorney and filed a complaint with HUD in January 2017, claiming that her fair housing rights were violated.
Tinley Park retaliated against Connolly in May 2017, filing a suit against her, accusing her of breaching her fiduciary duties to the village, as well as embroiling the village in litigation, including the Justice Department complaint. Tinley Park had her served at her new office in Racine, in front of her staff.
It was the only example Connolly and her attorney could find in which a municipality in Illinois sued a former employee.
But Connolly emerged victorious in the lawsuit, with the village paying her $360,000.
You can read the settlement between the Justice Department and the Village of Tinley Park by clicking here.
“I’m so pleased that HUD and DOJ — and even the Village’s insurer, IRMA, were there behind me,” Connolly said. “DOJ and HUD care about access to housing and ensuring that exclusionary zoning tactics shouldn’t create segregation.”
Connolly said she missed Howell the entire time she lived in Tinley Park.
“There was no charming, historic downtown, or the community spirit so evident in everything the city and community undertook,” Connolly said. “Howell continues to be my ‘home,’ the place where my children were born. The Connollys will always be big fans of Howell, Michigan.”
And Connolly hopes that her experience will help others in her profession: “I hope I have thousands of opportunities to talk about these cases, and to help planners in similar circumstances.”
And these days, Connolly gets to facilitate all the development benefit of projects related to the new Foxconn campus under development in Racine County. Foxconn — which manufactures electronic products, including the iPad, iPhone, iPod, Kindle, Playstation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One — is one of the world’s largest employers, manufacturing an estimated 40 percent of all consumer electronics in the world.
Check out this amazing video of the Foxconn project: