The final days

Top aide fired after standoff with mayor over money

The demise of Val Yazell, fired by Mayor Jim Langfelder last week, came after arguments between the city’s erstwhile economic development director and the mayor’s office about money to fix a building used by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on 11th Street.

On Dec. 31, the mayor signed an agreement with the NAACP promising $45,000 in federal block grants. Yazell balked. Less than a month later, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reminded the mayor’s office of eligibility requirements for federal block grants but without mentioning any specific project. Ultimately, the city abandoned plans to tap federal money for HVAC and roof work on the NAACP building, which Yazell had argued wouldn’t be legal, and instead used city funds.

Langfelder did not return a phone call. Yazell, saying that she is consulting with an attorney, declined comment.

The city last month wrote a $44,572 check; the mayor can spend up to $50,000 without city council approval. The council last fall tabled Langfelder’s request for $150,000 in federal block grants for the building, which is used by the NAACP as offices and as an alternative high school. In turning down the mayor’s request, council members expressed concerns about a lack of public bidding to do the work and NAACP president Teresa Haley’s ownership interest in the building, which was purchased last year by a nonprofit headquartered in her home.

In a Jan. 25 letter to Langfelder, who had already promised block grants to the NAACP, a HUD official listed federal requirements, including documentation that beneficiaries are eligible and the need for public comment. Some, but not all, requirements had been amended in response to pandemic, wrote Donald Kathan, director of HUD’s Illinois Office of Planning and Economic Development. Kathan did not mention the NAACP building, but told the mayor that expenditures found ineligible must be repaid.

Citing that letter, Yazell four days later refused to sign paperwork releasing the federal funds.

“Not only was process not followed (according to HUD, a nail can’t be driven before there is a signed agreement), and given our most recent HUD letter, I would be negligent in my duties by trying to make this work,” Yazell wrote. “All work was completed without following the rules every other applicant…has followed.”

Corporation counsel Jim Zerkle followed up. “(T)here appears to be some confusion on understanding the application of the (block grant) regulations to small projects,” he wrote to Yazell and several other city officials, including Joey Nolting, a community relations specialist who reported to Yazell. Nolting complained that the city economic development office had been “completely sidestepped” and also predicted that HUD would reprimand the city and require repayment of any federal money released.

“Respectfully, Mr. Zerkle, there is no confusion relating to the size of the project or the necessity of heating units in the… building,” Nolting wrote in an email to the city's top lawyer. “To your point, confusion exists in at least one area. I am confused as to how (the Office of Planning and Economic Development) can effectively administer the grant dollars our city is awarded without the ability to follow our processes and make the determinations needed, per the parameters given. When HUD staff looks at this project, it will be abundantly clear that we disregarded those parameters, as the work was completed in early December and the agreement is dated Dec. 31.” -

Weeks later, Langfelder emailed Yazell and five other city officials, asking if the NAACP had gotten its money and, if not, why not. City budget director William McCarty replied, asking whether federal funds should be used. The mayor responded two days later, writing on Feb. 28 that the project was eligible for block grants, given that minority students from low-income families attend class in the building. He gave Yazell and McCarty five days to decide “the best way” to reimburse the NAACP for repair costs. The deadline was March 5, and it was met. McCarty and city treasurer Misty Buscher confirm that city funds were used.

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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