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Dolton, Illinois’s Governance Crisis Has Wider Implications

Marc Joffe

henyard

Tiffany Henyard, mayor of Dalton, Illionis. (Screenshot, vodolton​.org)

The drama unfolding in Dolton, Illinois may seem irrelevant to those of us who are not among the 20,621 residents of the village immediately south of Chicago. But the controversy around Dolton’s self‐​styled “super mayor” Tiffany Henyard offers lessons about local government accountability that resonate nationwide.

The problems in Dolton are more likely to occur in states that have an excessive number of governments and poor oversight. But Dolton’s story also illustrates the potential for citizen journalists and engaged residents to push back against corruption and misgovernance.

Voters elected Henyard mayor of Dolton despite media reports that she rented a house to a Section 8 tenant that was uninhabitable due to mold. Since taking office she has been accused of financial improprieties, using the police to harass local businesses, and using her position to retaliate against residents and employees. A majority of voters supported a recall effort against Henyard, but the election was struck down by state courts.

Over the last several months, Henyard has sparred with four of the six town trustees, who recently hired former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to investigate Henyard’s alleged improprieties. Last week, the FBI delivered multiple subpoenas to Dolton’s village hall indicating the existence of a federal investigation.

Under Henyard’s leadership, Dolton has fallen two years behind in producing audited financial statements and is failing to provide periodic financial updates to trustees. Many vendors have complained about non‐​payment, and a leasing company threatened to repossess some of the town’s police vehicles earlier this year.

This situation developed in an environment of proliferating local governments with limited state oversight. Illinois has more local governments than any other state. The existence of more government entities obliges residents to vote for more elected officials and to monitor their actions. In the case of Dolton, residents pay taxes to the village, as well as a park district, a public library district, a water reclamation district, a forest preserve district, a mosquito abatement district, multiple school districts, a community college district, Thornton Township, and Cook County. That is a lot of local government entities for taxpayers to both fund and track, if they wish to demand accountability.

Tiffany Henyard holds elected office in both the village and township, allowing her to collect two salaries.

Robust state oversight of local governments could substitute for citizen involvement but that does not seem to be available in Illinois. As I’ve discussed previously, North Carolina established a powerful Local Government Commission that oversees municipal debt, intervenes in distress situations, and can even dissolve poorly functioning municipalities. Ohio also has very active local oversight through its State Auditor’s office.

Illinois has a mechanism for local government intervention, but it can only be triggered by a vote of the municipality’s governing body, and, for smaller communities like Dolton, a two‐​thirds majority of officials must ask for state involvement.

tiffany henyard

(Screenshot, vodolton​.org)

Unless and until Illinois consolidates local governments and/​or empowers a state agency to monitor and proactively intervene in distressed entities, it will be up to citizens and the media to hold local officials accountable. The collapse of local newspapers in the internet era appears to bode poorly for this remedy, but in Dolton’s case we have seen an encouraging trend.

In addition to frequent coverage from Chicago newspapers and broadcast media, several YouTube creators have been focusing on the situation in Dolton. “Hannibal is Hungry,” a YouTuber “uncovering scams and frauds in the realms of money, media, and society” has devoted multiple live streams to the issue providing commentary, interviews, and coverage of village board meetings. Nate the Lawyer, who focuses on “Comics, Pop Culture, Life, and Law” has also devoted multiple extended videos to events in Dolton, using his legal background to provide informed commentary. Other channels devoting multiple videos to Dolton include Actual Justice Warrior and Pink Book Lessons.

The ability for a single individual to use inexpensive social media platforms to bring attention to local political issues is proving to be a game changer in Dolton. These YouTubers can earn income from advertising on their videos and from interested viewers who can provide support on Patreon and through super chats, real‐​time comments viewers make during a livestream accompanied by donations.

Livestreams of Dolton trustee meetings have shown that several residents are well‐​informed, articulate, and passionate about the village’s financial crisis. Perhaps because they are aware that hundreds or thousands of social media consumers will see their interventions, these active citizens are taking full advantage of opportunities to provide public comment at each meeting.

It remains to be seen whether the Dolton formula can work elsewhere. Henyard is an especially flamboyant and photogenic politician, begging the question of whether YouTubers can generate audience interest for more bland instances of political malpractice. If they can, citizen journalists on YouTube and other platforms may be able to replace local newspapers, providing citizens with a new source of government accountability.

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