Island Lake legal bills tower over other towns' fees
Averaging $54,115 a month in March and April, Island Lake's legal bills are dramatically higher than those of other Lake County villages, a Daily Herald review shows.
The newspaper surveyed a selection of local communities with varying populations. In every case, Island Lake's legal bills towered over the fees the other towns pay for the same types of services.
For example, Island Lake and Lincolnshire have similar populations -- but Island Lake's legal bills are more than four times greater than Lincolnshire's monthly average of $12,500.
Island Lake's legal fees increased in March after a four-member majority on the village board voted to hire its own attorney rather than be represented by the firm that had been serving the village in recent years. That move resulted in a lawsuit from Mayor Debbie Herrmann against the four trustees who voted to hire the second firm.
Herrmann has argued state law gives her -- not the board -- the power to hire or fire the village's counsel.
Now with two firms on the payroll, the board faces a growing financial burden that is outpacing previous years' tabs.
Bills for the first four months of the year totaled more than $171,321, according to village records delivered under the Freedom of Information Act. That's more than 70 percent of what the town paid for legal services in all of 2010.
Although trustees are divided over the need for two firms, they agree the town's legal bills are too high.
"It's a mess," said Trustee Donna O'Malley, one of the board members who voted to hire the second firm.
"It sickens me," said Trustee Connie Mascillino, who opposed the maneuver.
This month, Herrmann and the trustees will meet with an independent mediator in hopes of reaching a compromise that could end the lawsuit and the fight over the law firms.
Until then, the bills continue to mount.
The battle grows
The fight over the town's legal bills heated up after the 2009 election.
At the time, new Trustee Laurie Rabattini and then-trustees John Ponio and Don Saville were a very vocal minority bloc on the board, feuding with Herrmann and the other three board members -- Mascillino, O'Malley and Don Verciglio -- about legal fees and many other issues.
In recent years, the town's attorneys have come from the Chicago firm Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni and Krafthefer.
Ancel Glink's bills for all of 2009 totaled $217,987, an average of $18,166, village records show. Last year, the firm was paid $235,846 for its services, an average of $19,654 a month.
The balance of political power on the board shifted early this year when O'Malley -- who ran for election in 2009 as part of the mayor's slate -- essentially defected to the other side, giving the critics an extra vote and majority control of the board.
This past March, Rabattini, O'Malley, Saville and Ponio voted to hire David McArdle as the board's attorney, over the objections of Mascillino and Verciglio. McArdle is a partner with the Crystal Lake firm Zukowski, Rogers, Flood and McArdle.
Ironically, one of the reasons the trustees cited for seeking new representation was the fees Ancel Glink had been charging the town each month.
A split board also voted to stop paying Ancel Glink for its services, which have continued despite the board's financial embargo. The panel ordered Ancel Glink to turn over pending files to McArdle's firm.
Herrmann and attorneys from Ancel Glink protested the decisions, saying Illinois law gives mayors -- not trustees -- the power to hire a town's lawyer. On March 15, Herrmann sued Rabattini, Ponio, Saville and O'Malley over the matter in Lake County court.
She also vetoed the moves.
"I cannot allow the village to run under ordinances and resolutions that are illegal," she told the Daily Herald recently. "That is not healthy -- and that is why you have any attorney."
But Herrmann's efforts haven't stopped the board majority, which has since voted to override the vetoes.
Village officials now are represented at every meeting by two attorneys. A lawyer from Ancel Glink -- often partner Stewart Diamond -- sits on the dais next to the mayor, while McArdle sits at a nearby staff table.
Ponio, Saville and Verciglio left the board this month after opting not to run in April's election. They were replaced by political newcomers Chuck Cermak, Thea Morris and Shannon Fox.
Cermak was endorsed by the mayor, while Morris and Fox ran as part of an opposition slate.
Although McArdle was ostensibly hired to represent the full board and not merely the four trustees who voted to bring him aboard, Mascillino and Cermak have insisted they've never used his services or sought his counsel.
"I have had no contact with (McArdle)," Mascillino said.
Mascillino and Cermak defended Herrmann's right to retain the town's attorney. They maintain the board majority acted improperly when it voted to hire McArdle.
"By state statute, the mayor may choose the legal firm," Mascillino said.
O'Malley disagreed, insisting the board was within its rights to hire McArdle.
"We are allowed to have our own legal representation, which is what we did," O'Malley said.
Comparing the bills
Regardless of who's right, the attorneys' bills have been growing.
Ancel Glink charged the village an estimated $27,661 for its March services and $30,682 for work done in April, according to village documents. A bill for May has not yet been made public.
The firm's statements include work done on village-related lawsuits, personnel issues, police union negotiations and other matters.
For those same months, McArdle's firm charged the town $19,960 and $29,927, respectively. Much of the work described on the firm's statements concerns Herrmann's lawsuit, but the firm also charged for other legal duties, records show.
When the two firms' bills are combined, the village owes $47,621 for March's services and $60,609 for April. That's much higher than the legal fees typically incurred in other Lake County towns, the Daily Herald's research showed.
In Vernon Hills, a village with 25,113 residents according to the 2010 census, legal bills average $25,500 a month.
In Mundelein, a town with 31,064 residents, legal fees average $26,000 a month.
In Fox Lake, a town with 10,579 residents, the bills average $17,000 a month.
In Gurnee, which has 21,295 residents, legal bills average $16,500 a month.
With 7,663 residents, Hawthorn Woods is close to Island Lake's size. Its legal bills average only $7,167 a month.
Officials in the other communities were shocked by the legal costs incurred in Island Lake, which has 8,080 residents.
"A busy year for us would be like $180,000 (in legal fees), or $15,000 a month," said Lincolnshire Village Manager Bob Irvin, whose town has 7,275 residents.
Long critical of Ancel Glink's bills and service, Rabattini acknowledged the bills from McArdle's firm compound the financial pressure on her village's coffers. But she believes having a second firm to advise the board is beneficial.
"In the short term, it's not good for the village," she said. "But in the long term ... it's going to save us a tremendous amount of money."
None of the bills from either firm for services delivered in March or April have been paid because of the ongoing dispute.
Someone is going to have to pay those bills eventually, Cermak said. He doesn't think the village should be responsible for McArdle's tab.
"I think the ones who hired him should pay for him," Cermak said. "I don't think the taxpayers should be burdened with that."
Can mediation help?
Rabattini has publicly recommended officials dismiss both firms and hire one together.
But Herrmann and her political allies have resisted Rabattini's suggestion. They believe Ancel Glink is the town's rightful attorney and the second firm was hired improperly.
Two of the targets of Herrmann's lawsuit left the board last month, but the case remains active.
Herrmann and the trustees hope mediation can lead them to a compromise. A closed-door meeting is scheduled for June 15 at village hall.
Herrmann said she is confident "something good" will come from the session.
"I have got to believe this will work," she said.
The alternative is fighting it out in court.
"(And) that's going to keep costing more money," Rabattini said.