Photo Anthony Caciopo
A man who refused to identify himself displays signs in counter-protest to the activists and community members gathered at Palos Township headquarters who were calling for the resignation of Trustee Sharon Brannigan. “Take your refugees and stick ‘em,” he shouted.
Activists and community members are turning up the heat on the Palos Township Board of Trustees for what they say is silence, inaction and even complicity regarding recent, controversial social media postings of Trustee Sharon Brannigan.
“We need to replace every single board member who remains silent in the face of Sharon Brannigan’s bigoted and racist speech,” said Tammy Georgiou, representative on behalf of Southwest Suburban Activists.
Georgiou and an estimated 100 people converged on Palos Township offices Monday evening to attend the monthly meeting of the township’s board of directors.
“We’ve received letters from five mayors (of communities in Palos Township) of support,” said Bassem Kawar of the National Network for Arab American Communities at a rally in the parking lot before the start of the meeting. “We’ll make their letters public in the next several days.”
For the third consecutive month, people protesting Trustee Brannigan for messages she posted on social media filled the 42-person-capacity meeting room at the township headquarters, 10802 S. Roberts Rd. in Palos Hills. Each time, the crowd exceeded the capacity of the meeting room by at least double, forcing many to stand in the lobby outside the room or outside the building.
Brannigan is under fire for now-deleted messages on Facebook which many people consider offensive to Muslims and other Middle Eastern people. In those postings, Brannigan questioned the intentions of Middle Easterners entering the U.S., questioned the documentation status of children entering local schools, and compared First Lady Melania Trump with women who wear hijabs
Last month’s meeting, on Aug. 14, was cancelled just as it was about to begin because of the number of attendees who packed the building. Officials announced at that time that the September meeting would be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd, due to fire code and the need to comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Attendees dispersed but vowed to be back.
As of Monday afternoon, hours before the meeting, a township employee answering the phone said that the meeting location had not moved. Rumors swirled among those arriving for the pre-meeting rally that the meeting would be held in the parking lot to accommodate the crowd. Come meeting time, however, the doors to the usual room were opened, resulting in the same overcrowding as the meetings in the two previous months.
“I suspect you’re wondering why we are back at our overflowing facility instead of a different, larger venue,” said Township Supervisor Colleen Schumann as the meeting began.
“We worked toward that goal in getting access to gyms and other areas but we were denied because children are on the premises,” she said.
“There’s tons of township community centers out there,” countered Azmi Mohammad. “It’s not only schools that could have been used.”
The board conducted little, if any, business other than approval of the previous meeting’s minutes. The floor was soon turned over to public for comments. More than a dozen attendees spoke. Cables snaked along a wall in the meeting room outside where a public address speaker was set up for the benefit of those unable to get in. A wireless microphone was passed around.
“What gall it takes to fail to find a comfortable venue for your constituents,” said Kip Cozad of Palos Park. “I wonder if you would have made the same decision if we were businessmen in the community.”
Cozad, like almost every other meeting attendee who spoke, quickly turned his attention to Trustee Brannigan’s fellow board members.
“Are you going to be leaders, or enablers” he asked. “Are any of you calling for her to step down?”
“We have no legal authority to remove another official from office,” Supervisor Schumann said.
“Forget the bylaws or a special rule,” said Cozad. “Just of your own integrity, are you going to stand up and ask for her to step down?”
The bylaws Cozad referred to were revealed earlier in the evening by Georgiou of Southwest Suburban Activists, who quoted “Appointed officials…shall conduct the government of the township with integrity and impartiality, without allowing prejudice, favoritism, or the opportunity for personal gain to influence their decisions or actions or to interfere with serving the public interest.”
It is this passage from the township government bylaws, it was argued by the activists, that would allow the board to remove Brannigan from her position.
“She has violated these acts in their own bylaws,” said Georgiou, “and they (the other trustees) know it. They can use it against her and they chose not to. Are they lying to us and standing behind her to protect her? Is this the tip of the iceberg? What else is going on in there?”
“Hate has no place in our communities,” said attorney Vivian Khalaf of Palos Hills. “You, the public officials, need to join us in that stand and take action. You work for us and you should represent us fairly and equally.
“What do the remaining board members do to rectify the wrongdoing of one of their own,” continued Khalaf, “or at a minimum appease the community? Absolutely nothing.”
“Not a damn thing!” said someone seated nearby, to applause.
Brannigan has said little publically since the controversy began. At the July 10 meeting, she read from a statement which said, in part “My published words on this platform (Facebook) regarding the taxes are for the sole purpose of bringing awareness to the property taxpayers occurring (sic) within our township.
“To clarify and underscore for those of you who don’t understand, the point of my statements criticizes the federal government’s poor immigration controls including an almost negligible visa tracking system. That criticism falls under my 1st Amendment right.
“I am fully supportive of inviting all hard-working immigrants who contribute their fair share to our society and township. Anything less would be un-American,” her statement concluded.
“She’s a hopeless case,” said Mohanned Alkaki of Orland Park about Trustee Brannigan, “but I wonder when you guys (the other board members) go home, do you really, truly wonder—not just for political reasons—but I’m talking about the moral part. Do you talk to one another and say ‘Hey, maybe what she has done is wrong’.”
Outward support for Brannigan at the three meetings has been scant, but a lone counter-protester took a prominent spot across the street from the 100+ demonstrators about to enter the meeting. His oversized, hand-lettered cardboard signs read “Sharon Brannigan stays” and “No ISIS in Palos Township.”
The main refused to identify himself but called out loudly “You wanna let everybody bring their relatives’ kids and dump them in our public schools, just because you don’t want to be called a racist?”
The meeting was peppered with rounds of applause for the individual speakers, more than a few elevated voices, and group chants that caused Supervisor Schumann to quickly grab the gavel and call for an adjournment as control of the meeting began to deteriorate.
Kawar, the representative of the National Network for Arab American Communities, called out the township office telephone number for attendees to program into their phones, urging them to call two, three, even more times per day.
“Keep the lines busy, remind them that Sharon Brannigan must resign and remind them that we’re coming back,” he said.
The next meeting of the Palos Township Board of Trustees is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9 at a location to be announced.