Amy Connolly, the development director for the City of Racine, is being sued in federal court by her former employer, the Village of Tinley Park, over a stalled affordable housing project that they say she misrepresented to the Board.

Alleging that Connolly “breached her fiduciary duties to the Village,” it is suing her for $75,000 plus punitive damages to “punish Connolly for her wrongful conduct and deter others from such conduct…”

Read the complaint: Tinley Park complaint against Connolly

The rift over the development started between the Village Board and Connolly after a number of residents opposed a multi-family low-income housing project known as The Reserve, a project presented by Ohio-based developer Buckeye Community Hope Foundation.

Connolly’s lawyer, Patrick Walsh, told the Racine County Eye that after citizens learned about the project, the Village backtracked on the project when those citizens filed a lawsuit of their own against Village. But that citizen-led lawsuit was dismissed in a Cook County Court.

At the time, the Village Board tabled the development and sent it back to Connolly for review. That’s when the Village began to use Connolly as a scapegoat, Walsh said.

“While Amy was the planning director for Tinley Park, she approached this development, along with others, the right way. She followed the letter of the law throughout approval process,” he said.

Slew of Lawsuits Filed

The stalled project triggered a number of court filings: Buckeye sued the Village of Tinley Park and the Department of Justice sued the Village of Tinley Park in 2016, Connolly filed a complaint against the Village of Tinley Park in January 2017 and now the Village is suing Connolly.

The Village filed the federal case against Connolly on May 1, just weeks after the Village of Tinley Park reached a tentative settlement in a federal lawsuit of its own after Buckeye sued them — and won — a sum of $2.45 million, according to a story by Tinley Park Patch.

Read the transcript from the lawsuit between Buckeye and the Village of Tinley Park: Connolly Court Transcript 7.25.16.

Federal Judge Milton Shadur, who heard the Buckeye case against the Village, found that the defense relied heavily on framing Connolly’s conduct as unprofessional, but in reviewing the case he found “nothing to suggest that she was doing anything other than a professional job” in handling the development.

The Illinois Department of Justice then filed its own case in November against the Village of Tinley Park, claiming that it violated the Fair Housing Act because it did not approve Buckeye’s project. That case has not been settled, but Shadur is expected to preside over the case, according to a story by the Chicago Tribune.

The Department of Justice noted in its filing against the Village of Tinley Park that because the project would have served a large number of black people and Tinley Park is a predominantly white community, a number of citizens suggested that the project would be better suited for community where black people lived in Illinois.

According to the Department of Justice:

“Tinley Park responded to the race-based opposition by sending the project back to the Planning Department for further review, which is where it has stayed ever since….Tinley Park engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful discrimination and denied rights to a group of persons on the basis of race and color in violation of the Fair Housing Act.”

Tinley Park’s Claims, Judge Takes Issue

The Village’s position: Connolly breached her duties by “making numerous intentional representations” during the planning process because the project did not have street level commercial space. 

They Connolly breached her duties by “making numerous intentional representations” during the planning process because the project did not have street level commercial space. They also said the project never complied with the Village’s zoning code and Connolly had the plan commission change the requirement for all downtown developments.

The newly elected Mayor of Tinley Park Jacob Vandenberg, who had been a village trustee and on the plan commission in 2015 and 2016, points out in the filings against Connolly that “concealed the street level commercial amendments” on Oct. 6,2015.

Walsh denies the claims and points to the Buckeye case against the Village of Tinley Park.

In the transcript, Shadur called the Village’s defense “regrettably misleading” because of how they took the position that Connolly concealed certain code amendment changes in the Plan Commission. A month prior to when Connolly allegedly misled the Plan Commission, Connolly repeatedly referred to and highlighted the ordnance. Vandenberg did not attend that meeting, according to Plan Commission meeting minutes.

Shadur pointed out the September meeting.

“I don’t think that you are really trying to contend that your clients, the Village Trustees are Village idiots that don’t understand matters on which they vote. At least I trust that is not the case,” Shadur said.

Calls were made to Vandenberg and the attorney representing the Village of Tinley Park, but none were returned.

“Bottom line, there was a huge public outcry from citizens on this and once it was tabled, the trustees needed a scapegoat,” Walsh said. “They then came out against the project and claimed that Amy had not kept them informed.”

Retaliation claims

Connolly believes the Village’s lawsuit against her was in retaliation against her and is the village’s effort to recoup some of the money they have to pay back to Buckeye, Walsh said.

Connolly was put on paid leave in February 2016 in relationship to how she handled the Buckeye development and the ordinance amendments. She resigned and then became the director of planning for the City of Racine in May 2016. In January, Connolly also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging her suspension violated federal fair housing laws. 

Racine Mayor John Dickert said this is a personnel matter and he does not comment on personnel matters.

“With that said, we are confident in Amy’s ability to move this city forward,” he said. “She is providing the City of Racine a pathway to move forward with development.”

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.