Small Town Government, Chicago-style Politics
One-time Lyons Mayor Ken Getty was sentenced to five years in prison for stealing from his west suburban village and, upon his release in 2004, he vowed revenge on political enemies he blamed for his downfall.
“I want to be like the Count of Monte Cristo,” Getty said at the time, a nod to the 19th century literary classic about a framed convict who escapes and exacts vengeance on his accusers.
Getty, for sure, was no Edmond Dantès. But the ex-con, now 77, does share something with the fictional French adventure hero.
The former Lyons mayor assembled a team of candidates to retake the village government. In 2009, his son Chris, then just 26 years old, became mayor and has held the reins of power ever since. Over his two-plus terms, Chris Getty has built up a political army with campaign funds currently holding more than $400,000, restored the family fiefdom and transformed the financially ailing government under his control into a stronghold of nepotism and cozy deals, a Better Government Association and Fox 32 investigation found.
An examination of public records and interviews shows Getty has put his father back on the public payroll as well as a brother, gotten ordinances passed to increase his own village salary sevenfold, eliminated limits that would have barred him from a third term, used a family insurance company to peddle policies to local taverns that rely on village hall for operating licenses and is arranging an unusual tax break for a big campaign contributor that could financially hurt school districts in neighboring towns. All this took place, records show, as the village wrestled with budget shortfalls and imposed layoffs and tax hikes.
Sold by the village, bought by the mayor
But nothing illustrates the questionable conduct more than the saga of the newly built split-level home in the 4600 block of Cracow Avenue where Getty now resides.
Under Getty’s direction, the village in 2013 demolished a run-down house that sat there, bought the lot in 2014 for almost $41,000 and then sold it in 2015 to a political contributor of the mayor — a construction firm that was the sole bidder on the property — at a nearly $13,500 loss, according to public records. Once a new house was finished, the contractor sold it to Getty in 2016 for slightly more than $291,000 without listing it on the market to field competing offers.
The Cook County Assessor now estimates the market value of Getty’s house at almost $325,000, while online real estate marketplace Zillow pegs it higher, at more than $400,000.
That’s just a taste of the unusual activity that has occurred under Getty in Lyons, a bite-sized, working-class community of 10,600 with big-city style politics involving cash and clout.
In addition to being mayor, Getty moonlights as the $27,488-a-year supervisor of Lyons Township as well as a manager of an Oak Brook hotel, a post he holds alongside a former executive of his village’s largest private contractor, a landfill. Owners of the landfill and other Lyons contractors poured in hundreds of thousands of dollars into Getty’s political funds, which have turned around and paid $169,000 in rent to Getty’s insurance business, election records show.
“They’re trying to get as much out of this job as they possibly can,” complained Patti Krueger, a former village trustee who lost to Getty by 96 votes in the 2009 mayor’s election. “It’s using the village of Lyons as their own personal ATM.”
Getty did not respond to detailed written questions about his conduct as mayor from the BGA. He also declined to speak in depth when confronted by reporters for the BGA and Fox 32 after a recent village board meeting, saying only that his house purchase was above board.
“It’s a small community, we have a new home builder that’s building homes in town,” Getty said. “I’m going to take advantage of that.”
At just one-fifth the size of a single Chicago ward, Lyons is one of those out-of-the-way places, like scores of suburbs and small towns across Illinois, where questions of accountability often go unexplored.
Former Cook County Commissioner Anthony Peraica, whose district once included Lyons, said elected officials in such small towns are emboldened to grant themselves taxpayer-funded perks because there’s little outside scrutiny or serious political opposition.
“It’s easy pickings,” said Peraica. “You have no competition, no systems of checks and balances.”
In Lyons, Getty’s unusual house purchase long went under the radar.
Skyway Homes, a small family business run out of an apartment in Brookfield, made its first political contribution for $2,000 to Getty more than four years ago. Since then, the firm and a sister company have contributed an additional $24,000 to Getty, built the house the mayor now owns and lives in, and become prominent developers in town.
Over the past five years, Skyway and the sister company, M & F Masonry, have built four additional homes on vacant land purchased from Lyons, with one recently selling for $427,000. As with Getty’s home, the developers were the only bidders for those properties and the village sold some of them at a loss to taxpayers.
Moises Gonzalez, president of Skyway, insisted that no “special deal” was extended to Getty. The mayor, Gonzalez said, saw a “for sale” sign outside the property and approached him with an offer.
“Believe me, I work 14 hours a day,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not in a position to be giving deals to anybody.”
Another beneficiary of the village’s real estate business is the Lyons deputy director of public works, Ivica “Otis” Lazich, a Getty donor and member of the crew Chris Getty’s father organized years ago to retake Lyons, records show. Lazich, currently the Lyons Library Board president, made $6,000 in commissions as a realtor connected to the village’s purchase of two homes and an empty lot next to Lyons’ village hall.
“Everything I do is legit so write your story,” Lazich said in response to questions from the BGA.
An atypical TIF district
In December, the village embarked on yet another land deal involving a Getty campaign contributor. This time it was with Tom Koulouris, who owns several properties in town including a large commercial strip at the southwest corner of Ogden and Harlem Avenues. Koulouris has contributed $27,000 to Getty political funds in recent years.
At its core, the deal aims to overlay a tax-increment financing district on Koulouris’ property, a common albeit controversial financial tool that Chicago and many suburbs use to jumpstart development.
In a typical TIF, revenue from property tax collections is divided into two parts. Anything derived from increasing values is set aside to be spent on economic development within a specific geographic area, with municipal leaders holding considerable sway over how to use the money. The portion of tax revenue derived from the baseline value of the property at the time a TIF is created still gets distributed to taxing bodies, such as schools, as it had been distributed previously.
But there’s little typical about the TIF Getty is proposing to set up for Koulouris. The village purchased the property for $10,000, which is far less than what public records list as the market value, and public records show that the village plans to sell it back to Koulouris for the same amount when it gets approval from county tax officials to declare the land tax-exempt government property. A petition from Lyons to achieve that status is currently being weighed by the Cook County Board of Review.
The properties last year generated nearly $55,000 in tax revenue for public bodies, with more than $37,000 of that benefitting school districts that largely cover Riverside and Brookfield as well as Triton Community College in River Grove, according to Cook County tax records.
But the maneuvering by Lyons, if approved, would reduce the value of the Koulouris property for tax purposes to zero and, for years to come, completely eliminate its revenue-generating capacity for those schools and other bodies. All property tax revenue would be poured back into the TIF district.
Multiple school districts serve different parts of Lyons, with the one serving most students in town, the Getty-controlled Lyons Elementary School District 103, effectively held harmless by the TIF scheme. But districts that mostly serve students from outside of Lyons would pay the price under the plan.
“You can say it’s novel if you want to put a good spin on it,” said Ares Dalianis, an attorney with Riverside Public School District 96, one of the districts that stands to be harmed. “You can call it a little shady if you want to look at it in the opposite light.”
Rachel Weber, a professor of urban planning at University of Illinois-Chicago, who has studied TIFs, said the Lyons plan is “exploiting the letter of the law.”
“The method they are going about it is that they are artificially deflating the value by public hands,” Weber said. “That’s a little strange.”
Koulouris, the property owner, declined to comment.
Family, allies on public payroll
Wedged in between the Stevenson Expressway and affluent Riverside, Lyons’ population is half Hispanic with a median household income 23% below the rest of Illinois, census data show.
To close a budget shortfall, Getty in 2014 won approval for a ballot referendum that led to an increase in the combined sales tax rate in Lyons from 8% to 10%. About the same time, Getty’s government laid off seven full-time police officers, about one-third of its force.
But even in the face of such financial distress, a village board packed with members of the mayor’s political party who routinely back his measures moved to dramatically hike their own taxpayer-funded salaries as well as give themselves taxpayer-funded health insurance for what are part-time positions.
Getty’s pay as mayor and liquor commissioner started at $10,000 in 2009 but will soon reach $70,000 under the schedule of raises approved by the village board. In 2014, he successfully pushed a ballot referendum, passed easily amid low-voter turnout, that did away with term limits for elected village officials.
And being mayor is not Getty’s only public job. In 2017, he ran without opposition to become supervisor of sprawling Lyons township, which covers all or parts of 17 suburbs.
Not long after assuming the mayor’s office, Getty returned his father to the public payroll as the chairman of the Lyons zoning appeals board, a post that pays $4,500 a year, to oversee a handful of meetings, public records show. The elder Getty was convicted in 1998 on 21 counts of mail fraud and money laundering in a bid-rigging scheme prosecutors said netted $179,000 for Ken Getty and two accomplices, according to court records and news reports.
The village under Chris Getty also hired his brother, Ken T. Getty, as a financial analyst, a job that last year earned him nearly $60,000 in wages and benefits, payroll records show. The brother also for several years has held another taxpayer-funded job with the Lyons Township Trustee of Schools, an agency with a history of controversy that manages money for more than a dozen west suburban school districts, according to public records. Last year, Ken T. Getty was promoted at the school agency to a $140,000-a-year supervisory post.
The Getty family insurance business also has historically benefitted under Chris Getty’s rule. Bars whose liquor licenses he oversees as liquor commissioner bought insurance from the agency until he promised in 2011 that the firm would stop the sales after a critical news report.
The mayor’s political allies also have joined Getty in being part of the Lyons village government, records show. Local barber Bryan McPherson, who in 2014 collected signatures for Getty’s political organization, holds a paid spot alongside Getty’s father on the zoning appeals board.
McPherson rents an apartment and barber shop from the village, which purchased the buildings for $250,000 from yet another Getty donor, according to village records. The village charges McPherson less than $1,000 per month in combined rent for the apartment and barbershop.
Paul Marchiori, a village board member and former Getty precinct captain, voted along with the rest of the board in 2016 to have Lyons purchase another local building for $120,000. The current tenant? Marchiori, who pays $1-a-month in rent to house a non-profit that trains service dogs for veterans.
Getty recently re-gained political control of school District 103, the largest employer in town with 360 workers. Campaign funds controlled by Getty allies spent nearly $20,000 — an unusually large sum in a small suburban election — to elect a slate of four candidates to the school board last month that included a village building inspector, the wife of another village inspector, and a sister of the village clerk, election records show.
This marks the second go-around of Getty control at District 103, which spends nearly $31 million annually and, in the past, employed and extended contracts to individuals who were Getty political supporters.
One supporter was Ryan Grace, a former Getty campaign chairman, who became the district’s maintenance director, according to news reports. Another was Marty Stack, once a Chicago city lawyer under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, hired as the district’s human resources director.
“When people win elections, they have the right to put people in who will put forth their platform and policies,” said Stack, now the lawyer for Getty’s police and fire commission. “That’s what politics is about at some level.”
Getty’s spending on the school races represented just a fraction of his campaign power in the western suburbs. As of last month, campaign funds controlled by Getty or run by his allies held more than $428,000 in the bank, according to state election records. That’s a political war chest greater than that held by the mayors of neighboring Brookfield, Cicero, Forest View, North Riverside, Riverside and Stickney combined, and serves as a formidable source of clout filled largely with donations from Lyon’s village contractors.
Over Getty’s decade as mayor, his biggest financial benefactor has been Reliable Materials Lyons, the firm that operates an in-town quarry turned landfill. Reliable and its executives have donated $103,000 to Getty over that time frame, records show.
Bill Ruting, a longtime resident and former village board member, has become a critic of the town’s Chicago-style politics. He says not much happens in Lyons without the mayor’s knowledge and blessing.
“You just get a sense that if you want to do business in Lyons you do it through Chris Getty,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A founding partner in a law firm that works for many Illinois municipalities, including Lyons, shares sports tickets with the reporter for Fox 32 who reported on this story. Neither the attorney nor any member of the firm were sources for this story.