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updated: 4/5/2013 1:42 PM

Winfield trustee questions hiring of law firm in rezoning case

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With some Winfield homeowners suing the town over a decision to rezone parcels along Roosevelt Road for commercial use, most village trustees say they want the lawyers who wrote the ordinance to defend it in court.

But one board member is crying foul over the decision to hire Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner because the Itasca-based law firm donated $1,000 to the campaign of three local candidates, including a sitting trustee who is seeking re-election on April 9.

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The board last month hired Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner to defend Winfield against a lawsuit brought by residents opposing the rezoning of more than a dozen residential properties along Roosevelt, Garys Mill and Wynwood roads. The parcels have been rezoned to a business classification to inspire commercial redevelopment.

At the time the March 21 vote was taken, Trustee Erik Spande supported retaining the law firm. He said he has since learned Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner donated $1,000 to Winfield First, the political committee for trustee candidates Tom Blackburn, Charles Jacques and incumbent Jay Olson.

Blackburn, Jacques and Olson are in a heated race for three trustee seats against Spande's political allies -- James McCurdy, Phillip Mustes and incumbent Jack Bajor.

On Thursday night, Spande pushed for a reconsideration of the vote to hire the law firm, but received no support for the idea. Three trustees rejected the reconsideration. Olson and Bajor both abstained.

Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner made the $1,000 donation to Winfield First on Feb. 5, according to the state board of elections. Winfield trustees agreed to hire the law firm on March 21.

"Our donation was to candidates we believe in," Phil Luetkehans said on Friday. "We made it a long time ago not thinking there would be any possibility we would be representing the village of Winfield at this time."

Spande, who is running for village president against Rob Hanlon, said he sought to reverse the March 21 decision because he's "no longer comfortable" with how he voted.

"Upon reflection, I found this to be a little troubling," Spande said. "That $1,000 is easily going to be made back in legal fees in very short order."

Spande said the law firm shouldn't have been eligible to receive a contract from the village because of the donation.

Trustee Tim Allen defended the decision to hire Schirott, Luetkehans & Garner, saying the firm wrote the rezoning ordinance. Allen paid for the ordinance to be drafted because the village attorney refused to do the work.

Allen said Luetkehans is the "right person" to defend the village in the lawsuit because he is "in tune" with why the rezoning was sought.

As for the campaign donation, Allen said, "There's no trustee on this board other than Trustee Olson who has any conflict."

While he abstained from Thursday's vote, Bajor said trustees who supported the rezoning should be able to pick the law firm they want. "They should have the representation they feel will give them the best legal counsel," he said.

Trustee Tony Reyes said the law firm was hired because it's "clearly the best choice" to handle the civil case. "Who they give political donations to is their business, frankly," he said.

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