Could This Illinois City Be The Next Flint?
Harvey, Illinois is a city in crisis — but their upcoming mayoral election could provide some relief.
*The included videos were filmed in April 2017 when I began this investigation, and the article includes updates from as recent as June 2018*
Sitting in a Starbucks just outside Harvey, Illinois on a beautiful spring day in April 2017, former 4th Ward Alderman Lamont Brown explained to me some of what had been happening in his city since Eric Kellogg was elected Mayor of Harvey in 2004. After an hour of speaking with the alderman, I knew this was only the tip of the iceberg. I was overwhelmed, wondering how I could ever cover everything that needed to be revealed in this city — and then, as I gathered my things to drive into Harvey, the alderman asked in a darkly humorous tone, “Did you bring a bullet proof vest?”
This light-hearted manner of talking about the dangers of investigating the crises affecting Harvey citizens became a theme throughout the rest of my day. Later in the week, Nancy Jones, a Harvey resident and one of the organizers for Harvey Citizens Take Action Together, told me, “We have to laugh about it. Fear won’t move us forward. Joking about it is all we can do.”
Everyone cautioned me to be careful, to watch that I wasn’t being followed — but it wasn’t their fellow citizens I was being cautioned against… it was the mayor and his staff. Each person I spoke with had been threatened or intimidated for speaking out against the mayor’s corrupt practices, but they were still eager to help me in my search for information.
“A New City Rising”
While exploring Harvey, Nancy stayed in touch with me through text, helping me finalize some meeting times and giving me advice on places to visit. One of the texts that stuck with me throughout the day read, “It’s like going into a third world country isn’t it?”
Plastered all over the city are signs branded with the mayor’s name, friendly phrases, and the slogan “A New City Rising.” Every time I came across a sign like that, I winced at the forced cheeriness. According to the city’s website, “The slogan ‘A New City Rising’ just begins to describe the progressive nature of Harvey, Illinois. Located at the junctions of major interstates as well as four national and multinational railroad lines, the community has typically been ‘on the go,’ with a variety of ethnic backgrounds mixing in the community.” While the facts about Harvey’s location and diversity are true, the “progressive nature” of the city is very much in question — at least for the mayor and his supporters.
What was once a beautiful and prosperous industrial city has fallen into disrepair. Millions of dollars in city funds that should be going towards infrastructure, utilities, and safety have disappeared without a trace — and the missing funds that are able to be traced lead back to the mayor and his family. So many issues are affecting this city that it’s difficult to keep track — a quick skim of the facts laid out in an open letter from the aldermen of Harvey requesting interference from state and federal officials again made me wonder how I would even begin to cover what is happening here.
Water Is Life
Out of the chaos, one of the most pressing issues on the minds of everyone I spoke with was Harvey’s own water crisis. Harvey provides water to its own citizens and several smaller surrounding towns. While citizens have been paying their water bills, somehow the money has not been going into the water fund that is used to pay Chicago for providing the water to Harvey. Because of this, the City of Harvey currently owes the City of Chicago more than $26 million.
When the lawsuit was originally filed by Chicago in 2012, Harvey owed $18 million. The mayor’s solution was to increase the citizens’ water bills in order to be able to pay this back while also paying their current bills. Despite the majority of aldermen voting against this measure, the mayor pushed it through — but the bills were still not paid to Chicago. They have now sued again, and Harvey citizens water bills have now doubled, or in some instances, tripled.
For people living an area that already struggles with poverty, this is a blow to their rights as humans to have access to water. Many citizens simply cannot afford the outrageous bills. Despite the fact that this has nothing to do with whether or not the citizens paid their bills in the past, Chicago has ordered that all delinquent water in Harvey be cut off. One citizen of the 3rd Ward, who wishes to remain anonymous, received a $400 bill that the utility company claims shot up because of a leak that the resident had no knowledge of. She could not pay the bill, and as of April 19th, 2017, her water was shut off. Water shut offs are continuing for residents who can not pay the exorbitant amounts to this day, and citizens are worried that they will become the next Flint, Michigan.
Because the city of Harvey has not cooperated in paying what is due to the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois is withholding $1.4 million in tax revenue from Harvey. This caused major layoffs in the city’s police force and fire department — 25% of Harvey’s union police members, 55% of their non-sworn police members, and 40% of their union firefighters were laid off in April 2018.
In February 2018, the city began having trouble even affording their weekly trash pick up, causing frequent disruptions to service since, and now there are health risks to residents as waste sits in the hot sun. Alderwoman Drewenski posted on a Facebook group for Harvey residents that there would be no garbage pick up this past Tuesday, June 5th, and there is uncertainty as to when it will begin again.
No True Democracy
Democracy has gone out the door in Harvey city council meetings. The mayor presides over them with the aura of a dictator who has proclaimed himself king, while the citizens under his “rule” suffer. Job availability has plummeted, bills have skyrocketed, people are forced to live in condemned housing, crime has risen, fear rules and morale is low.
Harvey citizens ability to speak up against the mayor’s corrupt ways has gained momentum over the past few years as freshman aldermen Chris Clark and Lamont Brown joined forces with Aldermen Shirley Drewenski and Joe Whittington in speaking up for transparency and accountability. These four aldermen created a majority out of the 6 in this city, until Brown was forced out of his seat in April 2017 by the mayor attacking him for being a reformed felon. Even when there was a majority, citizens of Harvey had an uphill battle ahead of them with Mayor Kellogg continually going against the council’s decisions.
Luckily, the citizens of Harvey did gain a huge advantage in 2017 when the city passed measures implementing term limits and primaries for their municipal elections. Because of this, when the next mayoral election rolls around on April 9, 2019, there is no way that Eric Kellogg can be re-elected. While a future mayor who focuses on serving the people of Harvey instead of himself is something to look forward to, many citizens are still hoping they can have Kellogg removed, and get down to the real work that Harvey needs with an interim Mayor whose focus is the city, and not themselves.
In the meantime, Harvey citizens and the aldermen who represent them are having to struggle against a mayor who uses extremely childish methods to smear and intimidate anyone who speaks up in a way he doesn’t like. To some, it almost seems a mimicry of the methods our current president uses in addressing the dissent against him.
One does wonder, looking at what has happened to this small city over the past 13 years if it is a harbinger of what is to come for our country as a whole. Our current president, like the Mayor of Harvey, also refuses to be transparent about monetary dealings, doesn’t uphold the promises he made during his campaign, uses insults, intimidation, and violence in response to dissent, and insists that everything is going wonderfully while ignoring the experiences of the people he is supposed to represent and protect.
Amidst the fear and uncertainty, there is a strong undercurrent of hope in Harvey. The people are waking up and seeing what is going on within their government. They are getting involved, speaking up more and more as they see that maybe it’s not as dangerous as they were made to believe.
Despite all that is working against them, Harvey citizens are determined to make their home the beautiful, prosperous city it once was, especially for the generations that will be coming next. They know that they can’t do it without each other — and without outside help.
Harvey is a city in crisis. I encourage anyone reading this to call the Illinois Attorney General and join the aldermen and their citizens in demanding a forensic audit on Harvey, as well as the removal of Mayor Kellogg on the grounds that he is illegally using city money for his own gain, and is prohibiting the legislature of this city from doing their jobs. I will be continuing to follow up on this story as Harvey citizens continue to fight for transparency and accountability in their municipal government — if you have any information, or would like to support the citizens of Harvey in a more in depth way, please contact me.