Naperville township road budget feud brings questions on checks, balances

A legal battle born of a road services debate in Naperville is about street sweeping, snow plowing, power and money — but it could turn out to have even broader implications.

The Naperville Township road district is suing the Naperville Township board of trustees, seeking the ability to spend the full $2.6 million it budgeted for this year instead of the $2 million that was approved.

But during this era focused on government consolidation, the suit could take on greater significance if it serves to define the checks and balances within township government.

At issue is how much authority township boards have when approving spending for township road districts, which are technically separate governing bodies with separate property tax levies and separate leadership.

Township legal experts say each township board has approval privileges over its road district's budget to provide oversight, ensuring no fraud, mismanagement or grossly unnecessary spending is taking place.

Many townships are so small there aren't enough accounting employees to provide such oversight in-house, said John Nelson, president of the Illinois Township Attorneys Association and a Rockford attorney. So the township board serves as a “safeguard.”

State law allows the township board to approve the road district's budget or parts of the budget as it deems necessary.

But that's where the problem comes in, says Rick Tarulis, attorney for the Naperville Township road district who holds an elected post as Lisle Township supervisor.

“It's a poorly worded statute. It has no definitions, no limits,” Tarulis said. “It just says the town board approves as much as they determine necessary. They couldn't approve zero; 99 percent is probably OK. But there's no guidance on where in between you draw the line.”

The suit he filed May 17 against the Naperville Township board of trustees could lead to more clarity, he says, especially if an appellate court eventually weighs in. Many such budget feuds at the township level eventually are dropped, leaving a shortage of precedent-setting cases to help the courts define the law.

“Sometimes it's beneficial to have the upper courts lay down some bright-line rules,” Nelson said.

He and James Kelly, vice president of the Illinois Township Attorneys Association and a Crystal Lake attorney, say the law that governs road district budget approval “definitely could be much more clear.”

That could be why the road district and township board in Naperville are interpreting it so differently.

The dispute began in April, when action to approve the budget of Highway Commissioner Stan Wojtasiak was delayed to give him a month to negotiate a potential road services deal with the city of Naperville.

Wojtasiak has disputed the city's estimate that the deal would save $800,000 a year, so when May rolled around, the two sides hadn't struck a deal. That's when township Supervisor Rachel Ossyra and trustees Kerry Malm and Janice Anderson voted during a May 10 meeting to cut the road district's budget by $544,325.

The cuts decreased spending on salaries, maintenance, administration, engineering, health insurance and retirement payments and instead directed some money toward the proposed agreement with the city.

“It's fully within the province of the board of trustees to decide what portions of the road district's budget should be approved,” said Steven Adams, attorney for the township board of trustees. “It's clear that we exercised that authority in a way that's consistent with the law.”

Township legal experts say cuts are OK. But under applicable law, Kelly said making changes isn't allowed. He said the budget cuts and redirections approved in Naperville Township are an example of a board overstepping its authority.

“In this case, it appears they're trying to basically force the highway commissioner into a position where he can't perform his duties,” Kelly said.

That's why Wojtasiak's suit seeks to nullify the reduced version of the road district's budget, prevent interference by township trustees in road district operations and require the township board to approve his original spending plan of $2,619,330 — or enough to “properly fund the functions of the highway commissioner and road district.”

The case is due in DuPage County court at 9:30 a.m. Friday in front of Judge Bonnie M. Wheaton. Both sides have been filing briefs, but Tarulis said he expects the case could take a long time to sort out.

Meanwhile the suit itself is costing taxpayers more money.

The township road district has spent $11,705 since May 11 on legal services related to the lawsuit, according to bills obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The township board of trustees replied to a request for information by saying it has not yet received legal bills related to the suit. Ossyra said she expects the bills to come in soon.

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Naperville Township Supervisor Rachel Ossyra says the township board acted within the law when it cut the road district's budget by more than $500,000.
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