Police Chief Threatens Lawsuit To Stop Clean Water Advocates From Criticizing Him
Terry and Wendy Greenrod for years warned about how two quarries near their home in downstate Sheridan might be contaminating local drinking water and they openly criticized local officials for not doing enough to stop it.
More recently, Terry Greenrod focused his criticism on the police chief, whose duties in the village of Sheridan about 60 miles southwest of Chicago also include being the local zoning enforcement officer.
That means he’s responsible for inspecting the quarries. At a village board meeting in June, Greenrod said Chief Charles Bergeron was “compromised” because the chief was too chummy with the quarries’ operator.
Then in late July, the Greenrods opened their mail and found a letter from an attorney hired by Bergeron. It warned the couple to “cease and desist” their “unlawful defamation” of the police chief’s character.
“I was shocked, but I knew we didn’t do anything wrong,” Wendy Greenrod said in an interview.
The move by Bergeron is an unusual one for a public official, whose jobs inherently come with criticism. One advocate for citizens’ rights said the letter could be viewed as an intimidation tactic because of the often insurmountable legal bar for proving defamation of public officials.
“Typically, a public official will try this and it really is just an effort to chill their speech,” said Ben Silver, a community lawyer for Citizen Advocacy Center of Elmhurst. “This is pretty outrageous … As a public official, you have to have thicker skin than that. It’s not defamation just because it’s criticism.”
In the letter, Bergeron doesn’t mention that he’s both the police chief and the existing zoning enforcement officer, two posts he’s filled for years.
“Charles Bergeron is a respected professional in the community and has done nothing except simply be nominated by the mayor as Sheridan’s zoning enforcement officer,” the letter read.
The Greenrods and quarry operator Branko Vardijan were featured in a Better Government Association story in June about so-called clean fill quarries, which are supposed to be free of pollutants that can contaminate local drinking water. The quarries have been shut down since July following a lawsuit from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan over threats to the water supply. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday denied Vardijan permit renewals, meaning both quarries will remain closed indefinitely.
Following the story’s publication, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office filed two lawsuits against the quarries’ owners, two corporate entities managed by Vardijan. Her office alleged dozens of violations of law, including that the quarries illegaly accepted banned items — metal, plastics, painted wood — that can potentially contaminate groundwater and the source of the community’s drinking water.
It was a victory for the Greenrods and two of their neighbors, Ken Thompson and Don McNelis, who have also raised concerns about groundwater contamination in Sheridan. But the celebration was short lived. The Bergeron letter, dated July 25, arrived at the Greenrods’ home the day after the court decision.
“We just got the attorney general to get the quarries shut down,” Wendy Greenrod said. “Our village is going to beat us up now over this? It was a huge letdown.”
One public official praised the Greenrods for their determination.
“This bad actor would not have been shut down if it was not for the advocacy for this group,” said state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, referring to the Greenrods, Thompson and McNelis.
At the June meeting, the Greenrods explained they felt the police chief was compromised to inspect the quarries because he hunted on land near one of the sites, on property held by quarry operator Branko Vardijan’s family. Terry Greenrod, who unsuccessfully ran for village president in 2013 and village trustee in 2015, also said at the meeting that the police chief uses land adjacent to the other quarry site for a shooting range.
At the same June meeting, Village President Shelly Figgins, who is often referred to as the mayor, acknowledged Bergeron hunted on the grounds and said the entire Sheridan police force uses the other land for a shooting range, according to a recording of the meeting.
Contacted by the BGA, both Bergeron and his lawyer Kendall Hodges of Ottawa declined to comment.
In the letter to the Greenrods signed by Hodges, the lawyer accuses the couple of “spreading false, destructive and defamatory rumors,” about Bergeron. The letter demands the couple “immediately cease and desist your unlawful defamation of Charles Bergeron.”
The police chief’s threats resonated in different ways with village officials.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s a personal matter,” Figgins said. “It doesn’t affect his job.”
Figgins was a trustee candidate in 2015, the same year Terry Greenrod ran for trustee. Greenrod placed last in a field of five candidates to fill three trustee seats, election records show.
Richard Burton, an Ottawa lawyer and the Sheridan village attorney, said he would not recommend the police chief sue residents for defamation.
“I would not advise this,” Burton said in an interview.
No public funds would be used to help Bergeron pay his legal bills, Burton assured.
“That would be just ridiculous,” he said.
Environmental reporting at the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, President of The Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.
August 14, 4:30 p.m.: The story was updated to note that the Illinois EPA has denied quarry operator Branko Vardijan permit renewals.