Outraged Bellwood residents film a special library board meeting on June 29 as a Bellwood police officer looks on. | Michael Romain/VFP
Friday, June 7, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Updated: 7/8/17
During a Bellwood special library board meeting held on June 29, four members of the library’s Board of Trustees voted in favor of placing the library’s executive director, Jacqueline Spratt, on paid administrative leave pending an outside investigation.
They also voted to rescind a board policy that authorized Spratt to “fill current staff vacancies, as well as future position [sic] as long as the Board is notified of the open position by email or at a meeting.”
But some residents and library officials said that both decisions aren’t valid since the meeting itself possibly violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act and two of the four library trustees may not be legal members of the board.
“This is totally illegal!” said Bellwood resident Thelma Matthews who observed the meeting, which was held in the library’s lower level common area since the board’s regular meeting room was booked.
Library employees said that Mary Clements, the board’s president, called the special meeting shortly after learning that two newly elected library trustees, Deborah Giles and Dorothy Clark-Smith (both of whom are also members of the Bellwood District 88 school board) were scheduled to attend a school board meeting at 6:30 p.m.
Spratt said that it’s at least the third time that Clements has hastily called a special meeting at the same time as a D88 school board meeting in order to gather a quorum (which is the minimum number of board members needed to be at a meeting in order to make binding votes) without having to deal with Giles, Clark-Smith or Connie Riales (who was elected in alliance with the two in April).
Several times in the past, residents said, Clements and her three allies on the board — Janice English, Sharon Tharpe and Gwendolyn Reese — have been no-shows at special meetings they called when it’s become clear that Giles and Clark-Smith would show up anyway.
Among the four board members who were in attendance and voted during the June 29 special meeting, the memberships of only Clements and English appear to be clearly valid.
According to Cook County court records that were obtained by a third party and anonymously submitted to this publication, Tharpe was convicted of arson with the intent to defraud an insurance company in 2002, a felony charge for which she was sentenced to 24 months’ probation.
In addition, county land records and other documents indicate that Tharpe’s official residence is in Chicago.
According to the Illinois Municipal Code, a person isn’t eligible for an elective municipal office if she hasn’t lived in that municipality for at least a year preceding her election.
State statutes also prohibit a person from taking office who “has been convicted in any court located in the United States of any infamous crime, bribery, perjury or other felony.”
Tharpe wouldn’t comment on the felony charges or her residency when confronted by community members at the June 29 meeting. She also declined requests for comment by this publication.
Reese’s board membership is currently under review by the State’s Attorney’s office. Reese was appointed during a special meeting on March 3. Library officials said that, as with the June 29 meeting, a public notification for the March meeting was posted less than 48 hours before the meeting was to take place — a violation of the Open Meetings Act. Additionally, library officials said, there was no agenda posted publicly for the March meeting, which would also violate the state act.
Video that was taken by residents of the March meeting shows Clements, former board member Regina Greene and Tharpe voting to accept the resignation of former board member J.B. Carr. After which, all four board members, including Carr — who had just tended her resignation — voted to appoint Reese to the seat Carr had just vacated.
Spratt can be seen on the video urging an attorney who was present when the vote happened to abide by a state statute that requires the seat to be declared vacant in the minutes before its filled. Spratt also pointed out that with only three valid members present, there was no quorum to make the appointment. Reese declined to comment for this story.
Since the April 4 election — when Giles, Clark-Smith and Riales (all members of the Bellwood Dream Team party), won seats to the library board, in large part based on their opposition to Clements and the sitting library board members — there’s been a tug of war between the two sides that has left the library partially paralyzed.
The Dream Team trustees said that they believe that Clements is playing cat and mouse in order to avoid losing her seat as board president.
“They don’t want us to participate in the process,” said Clark-Smith, who has been a library board member for over a decade. “If we go to a meeting they will not show up. Even if it’s a meeting called by them.”
At the June 29 meeting that Clements called, Giles, Clark-Smith and Riales were all absent, having called a special meeting of their own earlier in the day.
That meeting, library officials said, was “an actual special meeting” during which regular board meeting items weren’t discussed — unlike the 6:30 p.m. meeting that Clements called.
When asked on June 29 why Spratt was being placed on administrative leave, Clements declined to comment. She said that the outside agency that would lead an investigation into Spratt hasn’t been identified yet.
A man identifying himself as Hector Smith and who said he was an informal spokesperson for the four library board members had his own explanation for why Spratt was being put on paid leave.
“That lady is very disrespectful. I think that’s why she’s been put on administrative leave,” the man said, who residents later identified as Napoleon English, the husband of board member Janice English.
The June 29 meeting, during which Bellwood police officers were called to keep the peace between the two sides, was something of a climax to several months of impasse and tension.
Routine board policies and bills haven’t been approved and there hasn’t been an undisputed quorum present for the board to hold a regular meeting since February.
Fortunately, library officials said, a measure passed some years ago by the library board allows the library staff to pay bills while seeking board approval retroactively. Otherwise, there would be a backlog of unpaid bills.
The chaos was clarified in one moment during the June 29 meeting that was part tragic, part comic relief. After the four board members voted to go into closed session in order to discuss a sensitive personnel decision (which likely included the matter of Spratt’s administrative leave), they searched, in vain, for an open room in which to meet. There were none, since all of the available closed meeting spaces in the library were in use, forcing Clements, Tharpe, Reese and English to meet in the women’s restroom.
“There are nine meetings [since February] where there hasn’t been a quorum for the library board to meet and we also have people on this library board who are not legal,” said Matthews while the four trustees held closed session in the bathroom. Matthews added that she’s been attending regular library board meetings for the last two years.
“Tharpe, in addition to not being a legal board member, hasn’t attended a regular meeting in over two years,” she said. “Reese hasn’t been declared an official board member by the state’s attorney. These people are trying to run roughshod over us and Chuck Baxter is the puppet master.”
By any means necessary?
Many Bellwood residents say that Baxter, a businessman who lives in Maywood, is the real source of the recent disruption the library is going through. Baxter has been a recent fixture at Bellwood library board meetings for at least a year, residents say.
During the June 29 meeting, Baxter — who appears to be in his 70s — sat quietly at a nearby table and followed the four board members out of the door when the meeting was over. He declined to comment.
The Maywood resident has been described by the Edgar County Watchdogs, a public advocacy group, as a “mystery man” engaged in a “scheme involving kickbacks of some kind to plunder” the library, “using the board members he controls to achieve this.”
At a library board meeting last May, the Watchdogs reported, the board “was confronted on the shady handling of a bathroom remodeling project where it appeared that a consultant” chosen by Baxter was hired “without any public deliberation or explanation for why an expensive consultant is needed to oversee a bathroom project.”
Most library employees declined to be identified or wouldn’t comment on any board-related issues at all out of fear of retribution.
Spratt said that she believes Clements and the others voted to put her on paid leave as retribution for a complaint she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on June 19 alleging workplace harassment on the part of Clements.
“I filed that complaint on June 19 and 10 days later they were removing me,” Spratt said during a phone interview on July 7. “I believe that’s retribution.”
Spratt said last week that she wouldn’t recognize the vote by Clements and the three other board members to put her on paid leave or to revoke her hiring powers since she doesn’t believe the decisions have validity. The library director said that she’ll take her orders from state statutes that govern open meetings and library policies.
Bellwood resident Wanda Gipson said that she and other community members plan to report the four board members to the state’s attorney’s office, an action that residents have taken in the past. Unfortunately, some said, the state may not move fast enough to settle a conflict that appears to be coming to a problematic head.
On the Saturday following the June 29 meeting, board member Clark-Smith and Riales, in addition to Clark-Smith’s husband, were notified that Chuck Baxter and Clements had called a locksmith to change the locks to Spratt’s office. The two board members rushed to the office just before the locksmith could carry out those orders, they said.
And earlier this week, an attorney hired by Clements and the other board members attempted to file a temporary restraining order against Spratt, which would keep her from going in to work. The order was upheld briefly before a judge struck it down on July 7.
Giles and Clark-Smith, who accompanied Spratt to court, said that the only factor in the judge’s decision to strike down the order was Tharpe’s felony record.
“He said that any decision she votes on should be null and void because she’s a felon,” Giles said during a phone interview on Friday.
Giles said that she and Clark-Smith had to go to court themselves in order to sit on the library board after Clements and her three board colleagues voted on a policy that prohibited library board members from serving on two taxing bodies. Giles and Clark-Smith said the policy was put in place in an attempt to keep them off of the library board altogether. VFP
This article has been updated to correct the fact that Clark-Smith showed up at the library on Saturday before the locksmith arrived. Village Free Press regrets the error.