Brannigan breaks silence after months of protests

  • Written by Anthony Caciopo


                                                                      Photo by Anthony Caciopo

A protester at Monday's Palos Township Board of Trustees meeting placed his shoes on a table to show his disrespect as he addressed Sharon Brannigan and fellow board members. Brannigan is visible at far right; next to her is Trustee Richard C. Riley.


The monthly meeting at Palos Township headquarters Monday played out like so many before, with an overflow crowd, rallying cries and demands that Trustee Sharon Brannigan resign.

This time, the embattled trustee had something to say, albeit after the packed house had cleared out for the night.

“I’ve had about enough of this nonsense, I really have,” she said.

Brannigan has been at the center of controversy since July, 2017 when more than 100 protestors converged on the 42-seat Township meeting room at 10802 S. Roberts Road in Palos Hills.

The activists were there to challenge her about social media postings they said are bigoted toward Muslims and Middle Eastern people. They have turned out in similar numbers at each subsequent Palos Township Board of Trustees meeting.

Her multiple comments, now deleted, included speculation about the documentation of Middle Eastern students in Palos Township schools, and a comparison in dignity between First Lady Melania Trump and Middle Eastern women who wear headscarves.

Last summer, Brannigan issued a written statement which she read aloud at the monthly board meeting in an attempt to clarify her intentions. Later, she apologized by saying she was sorry if some residents felt her comments were anti-Arab or anti-Muslim.

“After deep reflection,” she said, “I can honestly say that my words were poorly crafted and my feelings were inadequately expressed. Racism and discrimination is not my intent and is not in my heart.”

Her apology was poorly received, with protestors claiming it was too little, too late and ultimately insincere. They maintain the only course of action is for her to resign.

“They can come for three more years,” Brannigan said Monday evening, in reference to protestors attending meetings for the remaining length of her elected term. “I’ve apologized three times over. If they don’t like me and don’t like what I’ve said, they can run against me. I’m not going anywhere.”

Protestors have also turned their attention to her fellow elected trustees, to Palos Township Supervisor Colleen Schumann and even to Sean Morrison, committeeman of the Palos Township Republican Organization. Morrison is also the Cook County Commissioner of the 17th District.

Each has been called upon, repeatedly, to pressure Brannigan to resign, which they say cannot be done because only voters can remove her from her elected position.

The packed monthly meetings, the often-heated rhetoric and the close quarters between the meeting attendees and the Board has Brannigan questioning safety.

“Have you asked the police why they’re not here? Probably would be a good idea to find out,” she said after the meeting. “We have requested and they have refused. I’m not going to tolerate it anymore. I want the (Palos Hills) police to be here, and if they won’t be here then the state police has to be.”

Deputy Chief Jeff Cucio of the Palos Hills Police Department told The Reporter “We have been in touch with the Township office and we’re aware of the meeting schedule,” he said. “We’re keeping an eye on the area, we understand that tensions are high, but we’re abiding by what the Township office requested.”

“We are always standing by,” he said. “We respond to every call (for assistance) that takes place in Palos Hills.”

When asked if she feels she is in any danger at the meetings, Brannigan said “There have been times that I have. In fact, tonight I think I saw a gentleman with a weapon under his jacket.”

Her comment was met with a quick response from Basem Kawar, national coordinator of the National Network of Arab American Communities.

“I’m sick of this idea that our community is violent,” he said. “Our community is not violent. Everything she is talking about is avoiding the fundamental question around racism and bigotry. All this nonsense she talks about is missing the fact that this problem was created by Trustee Sharon Brannigan. There must be accountability.”

“Hate speech translates into tangible effects on our community,” he said. “Hate speech translates into hate crimes. It’s okay for an elected official to spew that racist hate on social media? What kind of message is that sending — that it’s okay to talk down to Muslims and Arabs and immigrants and people who look different?”

Brannigan, who says she has received emails of support from across the U.S. and from as far away as England, chooses not to encourage her supporters to attend the meetings due to her concerns about security, a position scoffed at by Kawar.

Both factions claim there have been cases of abuse during or after the meetings by one or more members of the opposing side.

Word of a possible mediation meeting with a representative from the Department of Justice, as originally reported by The Reporter, has apparently not been re-ignited. The community coalition withdrew due to their claim of “bad faith” on the part of the Township by speaking about it to the media.

“We’ve tried to meet with the other side,” said Brannigan, in reference to the called-off meeting. “When they (the protestors) ask questions at tonight’s meeting about ‘why aren’t you answering us?’ — well, we have been more than willing to sit down and talk with any of the leaders. They refused to meet with the Department of Justice and we can’t do anything about that.”

“When you have your hand extended for a resolution and it’s not taken, that’s not my problem,” she said.

“Brannigan will not be part of any conversations that we are to hold with the Township, if we decide to hold any conversations,” said Kawar.

“It’s been proven over and over again that she is ill-suited to serve in public office,” he said. “It’s okay to criticize legislation but the second you single out one community over another with the shameful posts she put on social media, that’s taking the confrontation to a different level.”

“We all have to pay for our mistakes,” said Kawar. “The way the community believe she should pay for her mistakes is that she should step down.”

And will she? Before departing Palos Township headquarters after Monday’s meeting, her quick reply was “Not going to happen.”


Oak Lawn man doesn't take gift of life for granted

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

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                                                                 Photo by Dermot Connolly

Robert Reyes, a heart transplant recipient from Oak Lawn, and Dr. Ambar Andrade, a cardiologist, applaud during a ceremony held last Thursday at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn to honor organ donors and recipients.


Oak Lawn resident Robert Reyes, who received his new heart a year ago at Advocate Christ Medical Center, expressed appreciation for his new lease on life during an event honoring tissue and organ donors and recipients at the Oak Lawn hospital last Thursday.

April is National Donate Life Month, and the ceremony, held in conjunction with Advocate Children’s Hospital, Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network and Eversight Illinois, included the dedication of a garden of 1,330 pinwheels on the medical center campus at 4400 W. 95th St. to recognize all of the organ donors and recipients who came through the hospital over the last decade. As officials explained, the eight arms on the pinwheels represent the number of people whose lives can be saved by each organ donor.

“I received my new heart on April 11, 2017. To be honest with you, it has been a wonderful journey that would have been impossible without the care I received here,” said Reyes, 58, who was with his wife, Clarice.

Reyes said he had been struggling with advanced heart disease for many years and received a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) on Oct. 31, 2016. He had just come home from a LVAD therapy session when he got the call that a heart became available.

“Without my new heart, my outlook was grim. I sit up and am thankful every morning. I can only say thank you to you for all that you did,” said Reyes.

Other speakers included Dr. Ambar Andrade, an advanced heart failure cardiologist, and Cindy Cook, whose son, Jonathan, was a pediatric tissue donor.

Andrade, who was on the team who transplanted Reyes’ heart, said that 148 heart transplants have been done at Christ since the program began in 2007, making it one of the eight top U.S. hospitals for heart transplants. She noted that 84 kidney transplants have been done since 2010, and 24 lung transplants, which the hospital began doing more recently.

A representative of Eversight, a non-profit organization that helps restore vision and prevent blindness, said that 59 cornea donors also came from Christ within the past year.

“There is no pill I can prescribe to offer a cure when a transplant is needed,” Andrade said, expressing thanks to the families who agree to donate their loved ones’ organs. “I ask you to honor the lives of the organ recipients and the lives of the donors.”

Cook, a Bridgeview native now living in Joliet, said Jonathan would have been 22 this month. But he died at age 10 from complications of a rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 13.

She said he was cared for at Advocate Children’s Hospital, and when he died there, his donated heart valves and other tissues saved multiple lives.

“Jonathan loved life. He had a laugh that was contagious. Jonathan became very sick when he turned 10, and our team of doctors took us into a room and talked to us about the possibility of organ donation. We hesitated at first, but through our grief and despair, we tried to help others,” said Cook.

“It’s amazing that for someone whose condition we were told was incompatible with life, he gave life,” she added.

According to Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, every 10 minutes someone joins the national transplant waiting list and an average of 22 people die every day waiting for an organ donation.

“We are proud of the relationship we have with the Gift of Hope. We have an active heart, lung and kidney transplant center. We have had the largest number of donors within the Chicago area for the last 15 years,” said Rich Heim, president of Advocate Christ Medical Center.

He noted that Christ is also ranked in the top eight hospitals nationwide for patient outcomes following transplants.

“Christ is better than anyone at making that transition (following a death) to enable a family to make the decision about organ donation,” said Karen Smith, of Gift of Hope.

Oak Lawn eyeing major redevelopment

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

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                                                              Photo by Dermot Connolly

Oak Lawn officials are looking forward to working with the development group that recently purchased the 15-acre retail property vacated by Kmart and Chuck E. Cheese's in the 4100 block of West 95th Street.


Oak Lawn officials are looking forward to working with the new owners of the 15-acre former home of Kmart and Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant located in the 4100 block of West 95th Street, which was recently purchased by a Chicago development team.

Kimco Realty sold the property known as the Oak Lawn Shopping Center, in the 4100 block of 95th Street, west of Pulaski Road, to Hubbard Street Group and Keeler Real Estate LLC. The deal was finalized on April 2. The purchase price was reportedly more than $10 million, but that could not be confirmed.

Kmart anchored the strip mall until the store closed last November as part of a mass liquidation of Kmart stores nationwide. Chuck E. Cheese’s, located in the same property, also closed in November as part of an agreement with the village to leave by the end of the year. The restaurant and children’s entertainment venue had been plagued with security problems for years.

Two of the three remaining businesses in the main building on the site -- Pep Boys and Lumber Liquidators -- may relocate elsewhere in Oak Lawn. The third business is Payless ShoeSource, which is expected to close. Another Payless store is already located in the village at 6356 W. 95th St. A free-standing Chase Bank branch and Longhorn Steakhouse on the property are expected to remain.

Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen said village officials have been following the sale process closely.

“Oak Lawn is proactive on all redevelopment initiatives. We have been in constant contact from the decision by Kimco to sell this property, their Realtor CBE, and all serious interested buyers,” said Deetjen, noting that there were seven prospective buyers until the Hubbard Street Group formally won the bid.

The Hubbard Street Group has built numerous upscale residential developments throughout the Chicago area, as well as commercial developments, such as Nordstrom Rack at 1551 N. Sheffield Ave., North Avenue Collection, at 938 W. North Ave., and the Skokie Commons shopping center.

“All were professionals and we are looking forward to working with Hubbard on this site. They are cognizant of the village’s 95th Street Corridor Plan, which is official village policy,” said Deetjen.

The 95th Street Corridor Plan, adopted in 2014, is available on the village’s website. It lays out design plans for the entire length of 95th Street running through Oak Lawn, from Pulaski Road to Harlem Avenue.

“I would like to see a tear-down (of the main building) and a complete new development on that site,” said Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th), whose district includes the property.

“It’s located across the street from a very busy Target, Home Depot and other businesses, so retail will be very important. I’m looking for a mixed-use type development. I would like to see a car dealership, and I hear a small one is interested,” said the trustee.

“I would only support a residential development if it was for those ages 55 and older, because we really need that in Oak Lawn,” Vorderer said. “I’d like it to be located close to 96th and Keeler,” at the southwest corner of the property. “There are already a lot of condos and apartments there, and it is close to public transportation, on Pulaski.”

Vorderer said the close proximity of the site to the recently expanded Advocate Christ Medical Center, at 4440 W. 95th St., and other medical offices along 95th Street, also might make the site attractive for a senior residence.

“That hospital is an economic engine of the village. It employs a lot of people,” he said.

“I’ve been in touch with Mayor Sandra Bury and (Deetjen), and I am ready to sit down with the developers to talk about all this,” said Vorderer.

Stagg students keep saying something about school violence

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

By Dermot Connolly

Some students at Stagg High School in Palos Hills participated in National Walkout Day on March 14, calling for action to prevent school shootings. But the whole school has actually been doing so for years, through the “Say Something” program.

The “Say Something” program for students in sixth through 12thgrade was created by Sandy Hook Promise, a national non-profit gun violence prevention organization founded by several people whose family members were among the 26 people killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., on Dec. 14, 2012.

The program, which Stagg has been involved in since 2015, teaches youth and adults how to identify warning signs and signals, especially in social media, from individuals who may want to hurt themselves or others and how to Say Something to a trusted adult to get them help. The school at 11100 S. Roberts Road was named the Sandy Hook Promise’s 2017 Say Something Week winner, a national award, for Student Spirit, Creativity and Sustainability.

At the District 230 meeting held at Stagg on March 22, faculty members on the Say Something Committee that organizes the program explained how it works. The committee includes Head Dean Mary Pat Carr, Assistant Principal Ian MacLeod, Dean Kristyn Koss, and teachers Erin Wendt and Corky Lyons. Many of them will be representing Stagg at the National Sandy Hook Promise SAVE Summit on April 21 in Raleigh, N.C., where they will receive the award.

The two other high schools in District 230 -- Sandburg in Orland Park and Andrew in Tinley Park -- are also involved in the program, but to a lesser extent.

“Stagg has been “saying something” since 2015. The week in October was designed by the Sandy Hook Promise to empower students to speak to a trusted adult when or if they are concerned about a safety issue at school, with a friend, or in their community,” said Eric Olsen, the Stagg principal. 

A student-produced and narrated film explaining Say Something, and what goes on during Say Something Week, was also shown to the board. Students were shown the film in advisory periods that week, when the school was emblazoned with green, the color of the Say Something program. Students received green bracelets and staff wear green shirts as a visible reminder that they will “say something.”

A large banner was also on display, which staff and students alike sign as a pledge that they will “say something.”

Through the Say Something program, each student is assigned a faculty member to whom they can feel comfortable reporting any concerns. In most of the school shooting cases, it has been found that the shooter told someone about their plans.

“We want the students to be advocates for themselves and their community. We stress the difference between snitching and reporting. When you have a safety concern, you’re not telling on them,” said Koss. “You’re looking out for the safety of everyone.”

The school works closely with the Palos Hills Police Department and the North Palos Fire Department on safety programs year-round, but especially during the Say Something week.

“This year, we wanted to reach out to the greater Palos area, and we reached out to Conrady and Palos South junior high schools,” said Carr. Many of those students will eventually attend Stagg.

The T-shirts and bracelets were given to all the board members, but many, including Tony Serratore, were already proudly wears the bracelet.

“It is not just a week. Being recognized by the Sandy Hook Foundation shows that it has been ingrained in the culture of Stagg High School,” said Carr.

“The Say Something program has affected me in a big way,” senior Sabrina Vasquez told the board. “Just knowing that I have signed the pledge to say something gives me great pride. And knowing that I have a trusted member of the administration that I can go to with any concern gives me confidence.”

Junior Maggie Gorman noted that the Say Something program has been part of her entire high school experience.

“I feel like I have grown up with it. My friends are turning to me to ask what to do. It makes the school feel smaller and helps people feel safer,” she said.

“To be recognized as the leading program in the entire country is quite an honor,” said Rick Nogal, the school board president. “Our community has expressed understandable concern, considering what has happened at schools around the country. We have school resource officers at our schools. But this is quite a program to have, in addition to all the safety measures in place.” 

Budding artists take a bow in Oak Lawn

  • Written by Kelly White


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                                                                           Photo by Kelly White

Kelsey Klusacek, 9, of Oak Lawn, and her grandmother, Kate Monahan, of Oak Lawn, look over some of Kelsey's artwork she submitted into the Oak Lawn Park District’s Community Art Day on March 11 at the Oak View Center in Oak Lawn.


Kate Monahan has taken great pride in passing down one of her favorite hobbies to those she holds dearest to her heart -- painting. She enjoys spending afternoons with acrylic paints and her granddaughters, Kelsey Klusacek, 9, and Jordyn Klusacek, 10.

“Painting came very naturally to the girls and it’s something that we can all enjoy doing together,” said Monahan, of Oak Lawn.

“I’ve been painting with my grandma for about five years now, and it’s always so fun and something I really look forward to,” Kelsey Klusacek, also of Oak Lawn, said.

Oak Lawn Park District paid homage to its local artists, like the Klusacek sisters, on March 11 during the third annual Community Art Day and Competition at the Oak View Center.

The free event was open to all ages and featured a variety of art, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photography from 60 artists.

“The Oak Lawn Park District is dedicated to embracing and celebrating the arts, and we wanted a chance for the community to come together to showcase their talents,” said Michael Sinkewich, recreation supervisor for the Oak Lawn Park District. “We use this event to encourage art in the community by not only allowing local artists to showcase their talents, but by allowing everyone in attendance the opportunity to experience local art and to learn art techniques from the artists at the event.”

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Photo by Kelly White 

Maeve Hughes, 6, of Oak Lawn, is happy with the finger-paintings she created for the third annual Community Art Day and Competition at the Oak View Center in Oak Lawn.


During the event, there was a youth gallery set-up for artists ages 6 to 18 to showcase up to five pieces of their artwork and enter the youth art competition.  The youth art competition encompassed awards presented by Laurie Snaer, art instructor for the Oak Lawn Park District, and ribbons were presented for first, second, and third place, along with awards for honorable mentions and trophies for “Best in Show,” “Young Budding Artist,” “Most Promising Artist” and “Best Use of a Medium.” A people’s choice award was available for patrons to vote for their favorite artist.

Aspiring to become an artist when she grows up, Julia Bolcarolic knew this was the perfect way to get her artwork out into the open.

“I’ve always liked art because of the outcome,” said Bolcarolic, 10, of Oak Lawn. “You can share anything you create with others and they can hang it up in their homes.”

Artist Maeve Hughes, 6, of Oak Lawn, agreed.

“Art is amazing because you can put your mind into it and make anything you want,” she said.

The event did not stop at the youth artists, as an adult gallery was held in a separate room artwork display. Some of the adult artists also demonstrated a variety of art techniques that they have been working on while creating their masterpieces. 

An interactive movie and art project was also available for all attendees to enjoy.

No art was sold at the event. However, artists had the option to pass out their contact information if they wanted to sell their artwork after the event.

“We believe that everyone is an artist, no matter their age, and that is definitely on display at this event,” Sinkewich said. “The art created and showcased at our event by both youth and adults is incredible.”

The first Community Art Day was held in October of 2015. Prior to that, the park district offered a youth art competition for 10 years, according to Sinkewich.

“We transitioned into the Community Art Day because we wanted to expand beyond the youth artists,” he said. “So, we created an event that was able to encompass artists of all ages and abilities and expose our entire community to art. This event is a great reminder of the many benefits of art in the community, and we hope that everyone in attendance takes home that message and brings art into their lives. “