Leland Grove Mayor’s Closed-Door Meeting: Alleged Open Meetings Act Violation and Oxford House Residents’ Backgrounds Spark Concern

Leland Grove Mayor – Mary Jo Bangert

Leland Grove, Illinois – Residents of Leland Grove have new neighbors. The newcomers are called the Oxford House. However, several residents are unhappy about this development and are furious that Mary Jo Bangert, their mayor, did nothing to prevent the Oxford House from moving into the neighborhood or at least alert them about it. Meanwhile, as neighbors were expressing their concerns, the mayor and city council members held a private meeting that may have violated the Open Meetings Act. Such a violation could potentially result in legal fees for the village if a lawsuit is filed against them and could lead to criminal charges against the Mayor and Council Members.

The Oxford House is designed to help individuals recover from drug and alcohol addiction. It consists of people with criminal backgrounds and/or individuals recovering from substance abuse who live together in a shared residence. They are required to follow three rules: (1) each Oxford House must be financially self-supported; (2) each Oxford House must be democratically run; and (3) anyone who relapses into drug or alcohol use must be immediately expelled from their Oxford House.

According to a list provided to us, which identified the individuals in the Oxford House, one resident, who is currently on parole for driving under the influence, had previously received two DUIs within five months and had been sentenced to five years in prison. The resident, who was intoxicated and had no auto insurance, struck a man, seriously injuring him. The judge at the time told him, “I don’t think you’re an evil or a bad person. It’s one thing to drink and drive and kill yourself, but to almost kill other people is unspeakable.”

Another Oxford resident, who is also on parole, had his wife recently call Leland Grove police on February 20, 2024. She told police that he was missing and wasn’t answering her calls while he was in Chicago visiting friends. This resident is on parole for armed robbery and aggravated robbery, indicating that he was armed with a firearm. He also has a history of aggravated fleeing from police, aiding and abetting a stolen vehicle, attempted burglary, possession of a controlled substance, and burglary.

A neighbor, who preferred not to be named, witnessed the police at the Oxford House on February 20. They told us that the criminal history of some of the residents is what concerns them the most, especially with having young children. “I wish the Mayor would have done something. She should have called a special meeting to let us know. She should have fought this.”

The new Oxford House, located at 1809 Noble Ave in Leland Grove, has been the subject of multiple complaints from neighbors in the past few weeks, according to copies of emails we’ve obtained.

The complaints began on January 25, 2024. 

One neighbor emailed the mayor, stating, “Over the last few days, we’ve noticed many comings and goings from 1809 Noble. Unfortunately, last summer, the longtime prior owner, Mr. Turner, moved into assisted living. The house has seemingly been in a state of flux since then. Over the weekend, specifically on Sunday around 2 pm, I observed two men walking up and down the street smoking. The scent of cannabis was present.” The neighbor also questioned how the home could be zoned for 8 unrelated men. “Given the many comings and goings of unknown people from the home, many neighbors have been talking and expressing concern. It came to the attention of many neighbors today that a group of 8 men from the “Oxford House” are residing in the home. Allegedly, this company provides a recovery home for men with drug and alcohol addiction. The home is zoned single-family residential. I am not clear how a recovery home for 8 unrelated men fits that zoning requirement.” Mayor Bangert responded that it was unlawful for any jurisdiction to discriminate against congregate living for the disabled. “According to federal law, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts fall within the scope of the term “disabled.” She also told the neighbor that she would have City Attorney Roland Cross look further into the matter and mentioned that she had asked a Sergeant with the Leland Grove Police Department to visit the house to address a few issues.

Another neighbor emailed Alderwoman Diana Hetherington and requested an immediate neighborhood meeting. “Diane – Can I please request an immediate neighborhood meeting with you, LG Village legal counsel, and our concerned neighbors? We all need a better understanding of the recent developments on Noble Ave. We would like to hear directly from the Village how they interpret the residential housing ordinance and what, if anything, can be done to minimize or remove this potentially negative addition to our neighborhood. Clarity on the Federal Government Fair Housing new guidelines – and how this property falls within the protected class – might be helpful. The sooner this is addressed, the better for all involved.”

Alderwoman Hetherington responded, stating that she was currently in Florida and would contact him upon her return. However, 5 days later, the Mayor responded to this neighbor with a similar message that she provided to every neighbor who had a complaint. She informed this neighbor that it is unlawful for the city to notify neighbors of this group home and that it is unlawful for the city to call a special meeting regarding this matter.

“Another Complaint”

A third neighbor emailed Alderman Stephen Klokkenga. This neighbor wanted to know why they had to go through several stipulations to get a new garage built due to storm damage, but the village did not protest the Oxford House. “I am writing to convey the concern my husband and I feel regarding the recent installation of the group home for recovering drug users and alcoholics. It is our understanding that our street is zoned for single-family dwellings, yet we heard nothing regarding this exception being pushed through, and were given no opportunity to protest the move. Our neighbors, who have young children, are naturally concerned and have seen people smoking joints outside the home. We always felt safe in our neighborhood and feel very much betrayed by this move. When we needed a new garage built due to storm damage, the zoning board made us get permission from all neighbors surrounding our home, and there were still stipulations. Where was our voice in this process?”

Alderman Klokkenga, who received this email, forwarded it to the mayor and said, “Another complaint.” The Mayor responded to this neighbor with a similar message that she provided to every neighbor who had a complaint. She informed this neighbor that it is unlawful for the city to notify neighbors of this group home and that it is unlawful for the city to call a special meeting regarding this matter. However, she did add that Leland Grove Police Chief Dan Ryan is making sure the area is patrolled.

Neighbor demands a special meeting

A fourth neighbor, who identified herself as a mother of 2, emailed the mayor and wanted to know why was it so easy for the Oxford House to “skirt” by, but stated that the Leland Grove pressured its citizens to follow permits. “I have lived in our house for almost 10 years this July. A house that I have spent money and personal labor towards improvements. A house where I filed every permit, paid every fee that Leland Grove has asked of me. Something that apparently didn’t need to be done at all. Why was it so easy for this Oxford house to “skirt” by when Leland Grove has done everything to pressure its citizens to follow permits? Tyler Lanier (Leland Grove’s Administrator)at one point even showed up at my house demanding such for a dilapidated fence. However, you made it simple for a halfway house to “magically” appear in the night. Leland Grove was once a place where people aspired to live, the cleanliness, the character of the homes, and the safety of an active police force dedicated to its citizens. All things that once carried so much pride in my community is now stripped away. You, Mayor Bangert have failed us and most importantly, our children. The lack of communication from you and our elected officials is a disappointment. Your community SHOULD have been notified, providing us a time to be proactive, not reactive. I want to know what you and the council will be doing to fight for our community. I want a special meeting COMMUNICATED to all residents allowing us the time to ask questions and most importantly, receive responses. We have the right as this has not only impacted the value of our homes but the safety of our families. I’m asking you to show up for your community before we too start selling our homes to halfway housing. I look forward to receiving the date of said meeting. 

The Mayor responded to this neighbor with a similar message that she provided to every neighbor who had a complaint. She informed this neighbor that it is unlawful for the city to notify neighbors of this group home and that it is unlawful for the city to call a special meeting regarding this matter. However, she did add that Leland Grove Police Chief Dan Ryan is making sure the area is patrolled.

A 5th neighbor questions how the Village could allowed this

A 5th neighbor emailed the mayor inquiring how the Village would allow 5 males to live under the same roof if they aren’t related. “It was just brought to my attention from a neighbor that the old Turner house on the 1700 block of Noble Avenue has been sold to a gentleman with the last name of Gurney. Don’t know his first name. It is my understanding that his intentions are to use this single dwelling home for a group home under the guidance of the Oxford Alcohol/Drug Recovery Home. This is outrageous to say the least. I’m not totally clear on LG’s ordinance, but I know that two families can’t live under the same roof it they aren’t related? Do you understand what this will do to our property values? My neighbor has talked with members of our Police Dept and they are concerned about the frequency of calls that will result in this rehab facility being located in our quiet little village. I can’t imagine what the young families on this block might be thinking as I have not talked with any of them. I am wondering if this issue was brought up during the monthly meetings? This seems like a very bad thing for this neighborhood.”

The Mayor responded to this neighbor with a similar message that she provided to every neighbor who had a complaint. She informed this neighbor that it is unlawful for the city to notify neighbors of this group home and that it is unlawful for the city to call a special meeting regarding this matter. However, she did add that Leland Grove Police Chief Dan Ryan is making sure the area is patrolled.

The Mayor tells all Aldermen not to speak to the media

Springfield Leaks was informed about the Oxford House and the complaints from several neighbors. As a result, we sent the Mayor an email inquiring about any ordinances or agreements passed to allow the Oxford House to be placed in the village. In response to our email, the mayor instructed all Aldermen not to speak to the media and stated that City Attorney Cross would respond to Springfield Leaks. However, Attorney Cross never provided a response, prompting us to submit a Freedom of Information Request.

Two more neighbor complaints received

A 6th neighbor emailed the mayor with their complaint. “Tonight a taxi drove by and picked up several men who were loudly yelling. We noticed this several HOUSES down. I understand based on the email you have provided others, no response to me yet…that you are taking a backseat approach. There are cases out there and available to you should you decide to do the research. I would be happy to provide you with what we have found. Again, I look forward to your response. Please don’t send me the horrible article you have been passing around. It’s unwanted and extremely unhelpful as I’m sure you would feel the same should this have occurred on your side of Chatham road.

And the 7th neighbor emails the mayor with their complaint and said, “I am a resident in Leland Grove. There was a recent home purchased close to me. I was just notified that the residence s being used as a home for recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Several of the neighbors have been raising concerns due to the high foot traffic and vehicle traffic. Can you tell me if this is zoned along with allowed in our city limits? What are our options as this block has several young families that play and walk outside. Thank you for your help and immediate attention to this matter.

Leland Grove Mayor Bangert says they have to be careful as they move forward

In another email that we’ve obtained from Mayor Bangert that was written on January 31, 2024, to all of the Village aldermen, she calls this a difficult matter and discusses how they are unable to have a meeting with the neighbors as they have asked. “You may have received emails regarding the Oxford house on Noble Ave, please continue to send them to me. I have consulted with Attorney Cross and I am responding to each email in a similar manner. This is a difficult matter since the Oxford House is under the Federal Disability Act. A City may not show discrimination to this group, that is the reason we are unable to have a town meeting as the neighbors have requested. Attorney Cross has shared with me that we have to be careful as we move forward. Other cities have been sued or have sued the Oxford House resulting in the cities being responsible for Oxford House’s attorney fees in any litigation. He did share with me the attached article, it may help add additional insight to this matter.”

However, the next day, on February 1, 2024, despite the mayor’s statement about being unable to hold a town meeting as requested by neighbors, she sent an email to two Aldermen stating that she planned to invite two Leland Grove residents to join their meeting. “(Alderwoman) Diana and (Alderman) Steve I plan to invite Julia Wykoff and Mark Birtch to meet with us regarding the Oxford House. I have attached a memo from Attorney Cross, please remember this memo is for council knowledge only, it is not to be shared. We will meet Thursday, February 8th from 10:15 a.m. – 11:15 a.m. at the City Council room.” 

We briefly communicated via text messages with City Attorney Ross, who was also aware of this “meeting” as he was carbon copied on the email. After exchanging a few text messages with Attorney Ross, we asked him who all was in attendance at this meeting on February 8, 2024. However, he stopped responding. According to a source close to Springfield Leaks, we were informed that the following individuals were at that meeting: Alderwoman Diana Hetherington, Alderman Stephen Klokkenga, Mayor Mary Jo Bangert, Attorney Roland Cross, Julia Wykoff, Chad Zoelzer, and Mark Birtch.

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, a meeting occurs when the majority of the minimum number of members required to make decisions gather to discuss official business. In Leland Grove, the City Council consists of 7 members, including the mayor. To conduct business officially, at least 4 members must be present; this number is known as the quorum. Therefore, if 3 out of those 4 required members are present, a meeting is taking place in accordance with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. However, no notice was given to the public to inform them of this meeting, which constitutes a violation of the Open Meetings Act. 

According to the Open Meetings Act, elected officials found violating it could be subject to a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500. Additionally, if a lawsuit is filed against Leland Grove for violating the Open Meetings Act, the village could be held responsible for attorney fees and costs.

Currently, Springfield Leaks is actively consulting with an attorney in Northern Illinois to review this alleged violation.

Neighbors have informed us that they intend to attend tonight’s City Council meeting to voice their concerns and opposition to the Oxford House. The meeting is scheduled to start at 6:00 p.m. in the meeting room of the Instructional Resource Center, located at 2000 Chatham Road, in the City of Leland Grove, Illinois.

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