Joliet city officials tackle questions on asylum grant as township supervisor stays mum

Councilman Joe Clement speaks out against the grant money  Joliet Township board applied for to help asylum seekers without the city of Joliet’s knowledge at the Joliet City Council Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

The public outcry over an $8.6 million state grant to support housing and services for asylum seekers in Joliet has been directed at city officials, who repeatedly emphasize that they did not seek the money and don’t want it.

The grant was the main topic of debate at two City Council meetings this week, where residents came largely to voice their opposition.

Mayor Terry D’Arcy and council members said they have been swamped with phone calls, texts and emails from constituents opposed to the development of housing and other services for asylum seekers being bussed into the Chicago area.

But they all said they knew nothing about the grant until news media began reporting on it after an announcement from Gov. JB Pritzker’s office on Friday.

“I was in Nashville, and I was livid,” council member Joe Clement said at the council meeting on Tuesday. “I was thinking, ‘The city of Joliet did this?’”

Councilman Joe Clement speaks out against the grant money  Joliet Township board applied for to help asylum seekers without the city of Joliet’s knowledge at the Joliet City Council Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

Most council members and D’Arcy have sided with the general public’s reaction that they don’t want the $8.6 million grant coming to Joliet.

D’Arcy called it “almost a fraud” that the grant application listed his office and the Joliet Fire Department as local supporters.

“For us to be implicated in this is just totally wrong,” D’Arcy said. “I was named as a collaborator in this – the Joliet mayor’s office. I didn’t know anything about it.”

“This is not a conspiracy of anybody other than that they knew a grant was available. They went for it. They got it. And, now they don’t know what to do with it. Neither do we.”

—  Terry D'Arcy, mayor of Joliet

It didn’t help that a news release from the governor’s office initially named the city as the recipient of the grant. The release was later changed to list Joliet Township as the recipient.

It also didn’t help that township government is often not well-known by many residents, leaving many people unable to recognize the difference between actions taken by Joliet Township and those taken by the city of Joliet.

And it didn’t help that Joliet Township Supervisor Angel Contreras, the key public official and perhaps the only one involved in seeking the grant, laid low as public opposition built up. Contreras refused to take calls from the media while making no public statements through Tuesday.

Angel Contreras speaks at the Joliet Township meeting on Tuesday, July 11th, 2023 in Joliet.

Contreras left it up to city officials to explain what was happening.

Most of the explanations came from D’Arcy, who spoke to the township supervisor on both Monday and Tuesday.

Among the things D’Arcy said he learned is that the only organizations aware of the grant application were Joliet Township, the Spanish Community Center, and the Will-Grundy Medical Clinic.

He played down speculation that involvement in the grant application went beyond that.

“This is not a conspiracy of anybody other than that they knew a grant was available,” D’Arcy said. “They went for it. They got it. And, now they don’t know what to do with it. Neither do we.”

What D’Arcy also said he learned is that the grant application was for nearly $12 million, and “they didn’t really have a plan” for what to do with the money after getting $8.6 million.

Mayor Terry D’Arcy listens to public comment on the grant for asylum seekers at the Joliet City Council Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023 in Joliet.

Joliet resident Tina McGrath, who spoke at the Tuesday council meeting, was among those questioning how so few people could have been involved in the endeavor.

McGrath said she had been calling local officials all day.

“Everybody’s claiming that they had no idea that this was applied for,” McGrath said. “I don’t understand how that could happen.”

Clement, too, suggested there must be more behind the grant application.

“I can’t believe for the life of me that this township supervisor was called or contacted by the governor, and no one knew about it,” Clement said. “I think people knew. They know there’s big blowback, and they’re taking cover.”

But Joliet Township Trustee Ray Slattery said he and other members of the township board didn’t know about it either.

Slattery has been the only township official to speak publicly in any detail about the grant, and he did so at a City Council meeting on Monday.

The grant application was never brought to the township board for approval, Slattery said, and he doubts that it would do so now.

He speculated that Contreras on his own decided to pursue the money utilizing a grant writer employed by the township to make the application.

“The grant writer probably wrote it, and he probably directed her,” Slattery said.

Trista Brown, of Speak Up, asks that the city focus on helping local residents before assisting with asylum seekers at the Joliet City Council Meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023 in Joliet.

City Council members are encouraging people opposed to a local program for asylum seekers to go to the next Joliet Township board meeting to voice their opinion.

The next meeting is at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10 at the Joliet Township Office Building, which is at 175 W. Jefferson St. It happens to be located just across Jefferson Street from City Hall.

Council member Jan Quillman was among council members pointing out the time and place of the township board meeting to residents attending the City Council meeting.

“They need to be held accountable,” Quillman said. “Go there and show them we don’t want the grant.”

While city officials said they had nothing to do with getting the grant, some are saying they will do what they can to stop it.

They, like residents, say the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers in Joliet would strain services and schools while diverting tax dollars away from people who already live in the city.

“We will do everything we can to stop this from happening,” council member Sherri Reardon said. “I do not want us to be a sanctuary city in any way, shape or form.”