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posted: 6/3/2012 7:00 AM

Island Lake's big legal bills remain a concern

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  • Island Lake's monthly legal bills have decreased since officials settled a high-profile lawsuit last year, but they're still higher than they used to be.

       Island Lake's monthly legal bills have decreased since officials settled a high-profile lawsuit last year, but they're still higher than they used to be.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Trustee Laurie Rabattini

      Trustee Laurie Rabattini

  • Mayor Debbie Herrmann

      Mayor Debbie Herrmann

 
 

Island Lake's monthly legal bills have decreased significantly since an ugly fight between Mayor Debbie Herrmann and a group of trustees ended last summer.

However, village officials still are paying more for their attorneys' services each month than they did in the two years before the fight sparked a lawsuit, a Daily Herald review of the town's bills showed. And it was those 2009 and 2010 bills that -- among other issues -- got village officials feuding about legal services in the first place.

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In the eight months since the lawsuit was settled, the village was charged, on average, $24,419 a month for legal services by the town's long-standing law firm -- Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni and Krafthefer.

That sum is a few thousand dollars greater than the monthly averages for 2009 or 2010.

Trustee Laurie Rabattini, who was among the board members who squared off against Herrmann last year, remains concerned.

"The bills are pretty much the same as usual and (are) still too high for our town," she said in an email to the Daily Herald.

But Julie Tappendorf, one of the attorneys who represents the village, said the recent bills have been relatively high because Ancel Glink has been doing a lot of work for the town lately, including negotiating two new labor-union contracts and revising the entire village code book.

"It was just a significant amount of work," Tappendorf said.

The lawsuit

Herrmann filed her lawsuit in March 2011 in response to a power struggle between herself and a group of trustees who tried to chip away at her executive powers, including her ability to hire and fire the village's attorney and top administrators.

Those efforts stemmed from concerns about Ancel Glink's bills, which some trustees called too high, and other issues. They included a move by trustees to hire a new law firm -- Zukowski, Rogers, Flood and McArdle -- to represent the board.

Herrmann's lawsuit targeted four of the board's six trustees: Rabattini, Donna O'Malley, John Ponio and Don Saville. Rabattini is the only one still serving as a trustee.

With two law firms representing the divided factions of the village government, bills skyrocketed.

Between March and August 2011, the time span of the lawsuit, the village was charged $281,084 for legal services, an average of $46,847 a month.

The sum later was reduced as part of the settlement ending the suit. But for those six months, the bills were unusually high.

To put things into perspective, Lincolnshire -- a town with a population similar in size to Island Lake's -- averages about $12,500 in legal bills a month. Hawthorn Woods, another similarly sized town, typically averages $7,000 to $8,000 a month in legal fees, officials there said.

And Vernon Hills, a much larger village, pays about $27,400 a month in legal fees.

Island Lake Trustee Shannon Fox, who joined the board last year after Herrmann sued the board and was among the trustees who voted to settle the case, called the amount of money and time spent on the fight "a sad thing."

"It was a big waste all around," Fox said in an email.

Herrmann and the board settled the lawsuit in August 2011, a few months after an election in which Fox and two other newcomers replaced three incumbents on the board -- including Ponio and Saville.

The settlement undid most of the efforts to reduce Herrmann's powers and settled other issues, including how much the lawyers representing both sides should be paid.

It also restored Ancel Glink as the town's lone corporate counsel. The second firm was retained as legislative attorneys on an as-needed basis, but it has yet to do any billable work for the village, records indicate.

Rabattini declined to answer specific questions about the town's legal bills or the costly battle with Herrmann.

Last June, in a Daily Herald story about the village's legal costs, Rabattini admitted having a second law firm advising -- and charging -- the village wasn't good for the town in the short term.

"But in the long term, it's going to save us a tremendous amount of money," she said at the time.

When recently asked about that comment, Herrmann said she didn't think "any of (the fight) saved us any money."

The recent bills

Island Lake's monthly legal bills are lower now than they were during the lawsuit, but they're hardly insignificant.

According to village records the town was billed:

• $18,856 in September.

• $17,638 in October.

• $27,636 in November.

• $27,562 in December.

• $22,251 in January.

• $23,694 in February.

• $29,906 in March.

• $27,908 in April.

Those bills are, on average, higher than the monthly tabs Ancel Glink submitted in either 2009 or 2010.

The bills for 2009 totaled $217,987, an average of $18,166 a month. The bills for 2010 totaled $235,846, or $19,654 a month.

Ancel Glink has represented the village since 2005. The firm's bills have been higher than usual these past few months, Tappendorf said, because of the amount and type of work attorneys have done for the town.

Ancel Glink is representing the village in separate, ongoing labor negotiations with telecommunications employees and police officers. Both groups have new unions, Tappendorf said, and that requires new contracts to be drafted.

Ancel Glink has also been working on two employee grievance cases that led to arbitration, she said. Those cases have not yet concluded.

Additionally, the firm rewrote the town's code book, a long job that concluded this past spring. That effort contributed to March's billing spike, she said.

Other projects have led to more billable hours, too, including the recent deal for aggregation of electrical service and revisions to the town's personnel handbook, Tappendorf said.

"That's a once every five- or 10-year project," she said.

A cap saves costs

The bills would have been even higher in a few of the months if not for a cap on charges for corporate and prosecution work, Tappendorf said. The $17,000 limit was adopted in August 2011 as part of the lawsuit settlement.

Because of that cap, Ancel Glink wrote off more than $7,000 in potential revenue, records show.

Herrmann said the cap was her idea, a compromise with the trustees she was battling at the time.

"Obviously it's beneficial," she said.

The mayor expects the firm's bills will decrease once the union negotiations end.

"We should be seeing an incredible difference," she said.

The village is reimbursed for some prosecution work through court-ordered fees, too, Tappendorf said.

Specific jobs aside, Island Lake's legal bills may be higher than those in some towns, Tappendorf suggested, because the village doesn't have a manager or an administrator.

The law firm does some work for Island Lake officials that's handled by an administrator in other communities, she said.

"That can make a difference," she said.

Trustee Fox said she wishes the bills from Ancel Glink were less expensive but called them "the cost of doing business." Trustees and department heads must remain vigilant to ensure efficient spending, she said.

"We are well aware of the dollars being spent," Fox said. "Unfortunately for our checkbook, there happens to be a lot of legal work that needs doing right now."

Business: Lawyer says there's been extra work, including labor negotiations, grievance cases

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