Why All the Fuss about the Township Grant? Here’s Why

AngelContreras-web

By Nick Reiher

Following more than a week of questions and few answers, Joliet Township residents and area officials turned out in large numbers for the township’s October 10 meeting to find out how that body was awarded an $8.6 million state grant to provide local aid for an increasing number of asylum-seekers here and expected to hit Illinois soon.

Anticipating a much larger-than-normal crowd, Township Supervisor Angel Contreras, at the center of the controversy, moved the meeting from the township office several hundred feet west to the auditorium at Bicentennial Park.

Contreras had angered Joliet City officials by putting the city logo and that of the Joliet Fire Department as a show of common support on the application for the grant without their knowledge or permission.

At City Council meetings held a few days after learning of the grant award to Joliet Township, Mayor Terry D’Arcy and several council members vilified Contreras, calling his actions a fraud.

Contreras did not appear as requested at the October 3 City Council meeting to be held accountable for his actions.

It was not until speaking to a Herald News reporter a few days later that Contreras attempted to explain what had happened.

In his comments, later shared with Farmers Weekly Review in a press release, Contreras said the grant, originally a $12.1 million request, was to help offset the services already being provided by the Spanish Center and the Will Grundy Medical Clinic to more than 1,000 migrants already here.

Contreras did not address the issue of using city and fire department support without permission. But he hinted there were city officials who knew about the grant application because he had met with them prior to filing the 40-page document with the state.

That led D’Arcy and interim Joliet City Manager Rod Tonelli to issue separate press releases acknowledging Tonelli and some other city officials met with Contreras about needs that could be met with the grant.

But, D’Arcy, who did not meet with Contreras, and Tonelli said they absolutely did not give Contreras permission to say the city or the fire department were associated with the grant application.

They both called for Contreras to withdraw the grant application, which County Board Chair Judy Ogalla also demanded in a separate press release.

Once officials and the media obtained copies of the grant, other discrepancies in Contreras’ comments came to light.

Contacted in early September when Farmers Weekly heard the township might be interested in buying a former Silver Cross Hospital building on Copperfield Avenue, Contreras said it was too early to talk about that building.

Instead, he said the township was leasing the shuttered Hartman Center from the Joliet Park District for community recreation and transportation, and is using the former Peter Claver Center for community services.

In the application, however, both the Hartman Center and Peter Claver are mentioned as possibilities for a welcome center and health center for the asylum-seekers.

Officials from the Will County Health Department were listed as potential partners, but Executive Director Elizabeth Bilotta later said no one from the township contacted them about that.

She added that the Health Department already serves 311 uninsured people a month, including for dental and OB services.

Finally reached on October 5, Contreras said word of the Hartman Center being used instead for a migrant welcome center was only something that could happen. He said the township already was using the Hartman Center for community programs.

That was news to Joliet Park District officials. They said they had given the keys for Hartman to Contreras, who said he wanted to look around the building for ideas.

Once they heard about the possibility of a migrant welcome center, which they had never discussed with Contreras, they changed the locks on the building. There would have been no way for any programs to be going on there, as Contreras said.

Both the Joliet Park Board and the Joliet Township Board had approved a six-month lease of the Hartman Center, with an option to purchase after that. But since Contreras had never signed the document, they instead said they were working with their legal counsel to rescind the lease agreement.

As they did at the township’s October 10 meeting, irate residents spoke out at that City Council meeting, mostly to urge officials to “take care of our own” who are homeless and need services.

Some did point out the shortage of affordable housing in the area, including for veterans struggling to find services, as well as the already overwhelmed social service providers.

When some council members agreed, Councilman Cesar Guerrero, trying to cut through any xenophobia, said he hoped officials would indeed vote to help those in need when those issues came before them.

Meanwhile, Contreras said before the public comment at the township’s October 10 meeting that the board would consider all the input they received that night before deciding on what to do about the grant.

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