Ruby Donahue of Harvey has been active in Thornton Township government for many years, and she is concerned about the direction the township is heading.
“The image of the township has diminished,” Donahue said. “I go to all the municipalities and have spoken to people individually. A lot of them are not satisfied with what is happening here in the township.”
Donahue addressed an audience during public comment at Tuesday’s Thornton Township Board meeting in South Holland. She criticized the board for seeming to prioritize promoting festivals and other events instead of feeding hungry people and providing other assistance.
“In speaking with other people they say this, ‘We don’t want to go to anything there,’” she said. “They’re not interested in bingo games every week. They want to know how bills are being paid. They want to know about the budget.”
Donahue is a longtime member of the township’s Human Relations Commission. Volunteers representing many of the 15 communities in the township serve on the commission.
Frank Zuccarelli, the longtime township supervisor who died suddenly in January, encouraged the commission to sponsor programs to get people involved in their communities. The township’s commission has partnered with Thornton Township High School District 205, South Suburban College and others to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Donahue said she believes there is less diversity among people involved in township activities now compared to when Zuccarelli was supervisor.
“We need to bring some more people into the township, people of all ethnicities, not just African Americans,” Donahue said. “We have to look in a different direction in order to increase the diversity in the township.”
Thornton Township officials claimed for years they were the state’s largest township by population. That may no longer be the case, however, since many communities have lost significant numbers of residents in the past decade.
Census numbers showed Harvey lost 4,958 residents between 2010 and 2020 and shrank 19.6% to 20,324. Riverdale lost 21.3% of its population, declining by 2,886 to 10,663.
“We were once the top in the state of Illinois,” Donahue said. “Now, what have we got to offer?”
The township covers all or parts of Blue Island, Burnham, Calumet City, Dixmoor, Dolton, East Hazel Crest, Harvey, Hazel Crest, Homewood, Lansing, Markham, Phoenix, Riverdale, South Holland and Thornton.
Thornton Township remains an important asset to Democrats in Illinois and Cook County in particular. Voters tend to turn out in elections. Zuccarelli’s political clout was formidable, and the township continues to be a crucial voting bloc.
State Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey, the township’s newly installed Democratic Party committeeperson, said his popularity was off the charts when he recently met for the first time with Democratic committeepeople who represent Chicago’s 50 wards and Cook County’s 30 townships.
“Thornton Township has a heck of a reputation,” he told a party gathering in Dolton. “People were lining up to speak to me. U.S. senators were made in Thornton Township. Presidents were made in Thornton Township. Thornton Township is a launching pad.”
While the township may retain its political luster, township government seems to have diminished in recent months, Donahue said. The board appointed Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard supervisor in March to serve out the remainder of Zuccarelli’s term, which ends in 2025.
“They’re saying the township is not the same,” Donahue said of people she has spoken with throughout the township. “They’re seeing the township with a different vision and they don’t know how the correction can be made.”
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Donahue addressed a large audience in April during the township’s annual town meeting. Many township employees at the time spoke in support of Henyard.
Henyard remains a controversial figure in her dual roles as mayor and township supervisor. She was elected mayor after campaigning with promises of reform. Dolton village government has devolved into gridlock, however, with Henyard locked in legal battles with a board majority over hiring, spending and other practices.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some residents and former township employees have raised similar concerns about Henyard’s management of township government. Some have criticized the township on social media for spending money on bands for the recent Taste of Thornton Township festival and other events.
Donahue said she believes the township could change direction by returning to its roots of serving essential needs such as helping people with food and shelter instead of staging entertainment. A good start would be to reach out to mayors and getting a more diverse representation of township residents involved in programs.
“I think a lot of the things can be addressed,” Donahue said. “I think that can be improved by reaching out to municipalities.”
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.