By Ben Joravsky

A few weeks ago Peter Arendovich, fliers in hand, went canvassing door-to-door in south-suburban Lemont, hoping to generate opposition to the proposed I-355 tollway extension.

He didn’t expect to generate a letter from the local post office billing him $1,118.08.

According to the postmaster, Arendovich violated the federal law prohibiting leaving fliers in mailboxes. “The fliers weren’t stamped, and you can’t deposit unstamped material into mailboxes,” says Tom Huckaba, postmaster of the Lemont-Bolingbrook post office. “This is not a personal matter between Mr. Arendovich and the post office. It’s a matter of enforcing a code.”

But Arendovich says it’s a selective enforcement–intended to send a message to anyone who dares to oppose the I-355 extension. The tollway is a $610 million pork-barrel project that could have severe economic ramifications for Chicago, and south-suburban officials seem to be willing to go to great lengths to quash opposition to the extension.

“People leave stuff in my mailbox all the time. As far as I know they don’t get punished,” says Arendovich, who has lived in Lemont for about five years. “When I got this letter from the post office I thought, ‘This is extortion. They’re throwing the law at me because they want me to back off.”

The tollway Arendovich opposes would slice south from I-55 to Joliet and east to Indiana. It would also, Arendovich fears, seed the overdevelopment of unincorporated farmland, which would lead to higher property taxes and strained water supplies and would encourage would regional sprawl, ultimately taking resources away from the city. If that’s not bad enough, it would also use millions of state dollars that would be much better spent in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods and suburbs, like Lawndale and Harvey.

“Most of us moved here for cleaner air, but this will make the air dirtier,” says Arendovich. “It opens the area for more development, which means increasing taxes to build new schools and find new sources of water. The trees that are here will be knocked over. It’s going to be all cement, which they’ll salt in the winter, causing runoffs into creeks.”

Nonetheless, only federal environmental regulators can stand in the way of building the tollroad, which has been supported by the Illinois General Assembly and by every ranking Republican in the state, from Governor Jim Edgar down to the south-suburban mayors and council members. As they see it, the tollway is a rich source of contracts for lawyers, planners, engineers, road builders, and other generous contributors to GOP campaign coffers. (In addition, the tollroad’s indispensable for Edgar’s prize project, the airport at Peotone, another potentially senseless economic blow to the city.)

All in all, Arendovich was up against some mighty big players when he, his sons, and some like-minded neighbors set out on December 2 asking residents to attend an upcoming meeting of SCAT, an association of south-suburban residents who oppose the tollway. “I tried to talk to people face-to-face,” he says. “If they weren’t there, I left the flier.”

A few weeks later Arendovich received a certified letter, dated December 26, from postmaster Huckaba, which included a self-addressed postage-paid envelope.

“Please be advised that it was brought to the attention of this office by one of our customers that [a] total of 3494 items were placed in and upon private mailboxes of our customers here in Lemont, Illinois 60439 without prepayment of postage,” Huckaba wrote. “According to postal regulations any material of this kind found without postage will be billed to the appropriate business or individual. Therefore, having found some 3494 items at $.32 per piece, the total amount due the Post Office is $1118.08.”

The letter concluded with the following warning: “Please note that any person convicted of this offense shall be fined not more than $300.00 for each offense.”

Arendovich’s first reaction was outrage at the self-addressed envelope. “What, did he think I’d be so stupid as to pay all that money, no questions asked?” But soon anger turned to curiosity, and he wondered how Huckaba arrived at 3,494. They had only printed 300 fliers, and he was sure he had deposited no more than 40. Who complained? And why bill him when others had gone door-to-door with fliers?

“So I gave him [Huckaba] a call, and he told me he had a complaint from a town official whose name he would not reveal,” says Arendovich. “I realized he was between a rock and a hard place, and I almost felt sorry for him, because he had this unnamed official breathing down on him. I said, ‘Where did you get the 3,494? We only printed 300.’ He didn’t have an answer for that. He said he was charging me because the room where we had our meeting was rented in my name. That’s when I realized that whoever was behind this was serious enough to conduct a little investigation.”

A few days later Huckaba and Arendovich talked again. “I asked him how many fliers he’d found in the mailboxes, and he said, ‘Just a few.’ I said, ‘I’ll pay for them.’ And he said, ‘Forget it. Just don’t do it again.'”

Huckaba won’t comment further. He did, however, fax me the relevant pages from the U.S. Postal Code that governs “customer mail receptacles.”

Section 2.1 clearly states (as clearly as any federal regulation states) that “whoever knowingly and willfully deposits any mailable matter (such as statements of account, circulars, sale bills, or other like matter) on which no postage is paid, in any letter box…with intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon, shall for each such offense be fined not more than $300.”

Does this mean, I asked, that a Lemont politician can’t leave an unstamped campaign flier in a mailbox?

“Correct,” he said.

And would an offending politician be billed for postage?

“If it came to my attention.”

At least he won’t have to worry about Arendovich anymore. From now on he’ll cram his fliers in doors. “It’s not very friendly, and the fliers crumple up, but I learned my lesson,” he says. “You’ve got to be careful because someone’s watching.”

Linda Pudlo wasn’t surprised that federal prosecutors allowed a slimy little snitch to illegally dump mounds of garbage on the west side. By their indignant refusal to pay cleanup costs, it’s clear the feds think garbage mounds are a small price to pay for catching a crooked alderman–a curious leap of logic until you consider that none of the prosecutors running Operation Silver Shovel, the latest city hall undercover sting, are paying the price. Few, if any, live near illegal dumps.

“No one, from prosecutors to aldermen, respects the city,” says Pudlo. “They treat us like we live in a pit where they can just dump their garbage.”

Pudlo should know. In the last three years, she and her neighbors have fought off two monumentally stupid and dangerous proposals to dump in residential neighborhoods on the northwest side (neither case was related to Operation Silver Shovel). “In Chicago the attitude’s that you can get away with anything if you know the right people. Who cares what residents want?” says Pudlo. “That how it was with the Palumbo site.”

In the fall of 1992 trucks belonging to Palumbo Construction, a well-connected company, began dumping their debris in an abandoned railroad yard in a residential neighborhood. Pudlo and other members of the Old Irving Park Association protested to city and state officials. “No one cared,” says Pudlo. “Our own alderman, Patrick Levar, said it was a done deal.”

It turned out that Palumbo didn’t even have a permit to operate a dump. “I remember sitting with Henry [Henderson, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environment],” says Pudlo. “Henry was on our side, but he was under so much pressure. It’s hard to say no to the big boys.”

After about 200 residents protested at a public hearing, Palumbo backed off and the debris was carted away; developers have since built about 60 or so houses on the site.

The other case was even more egregious. In the winter of 1994, Plote Inc., another well-connected contractor, cleared the land behind Lane Tech and across the street from a park and began dumping huge blocks of cement, which they planned to grind to gravel in a big, noisy machine known as a jaw crusher.

It turned out that two local aldermen, Dick Mell and Gene Schulter, had been working behind the scenes for months, lobbying Henderson to approve the project. “They were squeezing Henry tight,” says Pudlo.

Like Palumbo, Plote was dumping without a permit. Their workers stopped only when Henderson, backed by five squad cars, threatened to have them arrested. “[The workers] told me to get lost,” Henderson said at the time. “I told them that I was the commissioner, and they said that they had the aldermen’s permission.”

The matter went to the Zoning Board of Appeals. “They had hired Anne Burke [Alderman Ed Burke’s wife] as a lawyer,” says Pudlo. “She didn’t say a word. She just sat there. Everyone got the message: these guys have clout.”

The ZBA granted Plote’s request, and the dump might be operating today had 300 angry residents not attended a city hearing on the matter. Weighing clout against votes, Mayor Daley and Schulter sided with the residents (Mell stubbornly supported Plote’s proposal until the end). The permit was denied, and Plote cleaned up the site.

“The only way to beat these guys is push, push, push,” says Pudlo. “Henderson’s OK, but you have to really stand behind him. When things get hot, you have to help prop old Henry up–you know, hold his hand a little bit. Then he’ll do the right thing. I hope.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Jim Alexander Newberry.