Island Lake's legal bills are shrinking
Amrich delivers on election promise for Island Lake
Charles Amrich promised to reduce Island Lake's staggeringly high legal bills when he was elected the small town's mayor in April.
Now, seven months into his term, Amrich has more than accomplished that task, a Daily Herald analysis shows.
Island Lake's primary attorney, David McArdle, has billed the village an average of $13,759 each month for legal services delivered since Amrich took office in May.
In contrast, the average bill during the previous seven months was $32,147. Those invoices were for services provided by McArdle's predecessors, attorneys with the firm of Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni and Krafthefer.
Ancel Glink's lawyers resigned in April after Amrich and his allies won the election.
In addition to hiring McArdle, the Amrich-led village board also engaged lawyers from the firm of Diamond and LeSueur to take on other tasks previously handled by Ancel Glink.
Even when the bills from that firm are added to McArdle's, the monthly average since May is only $16,182 -- about half of Ancel Glink's $32,147 average for the preceding seven months.
Amrich believes he and the village staff were able to reduce the town's legal costs by being more conscientious about when they call or meet with their lawyers.
After all, for most attorneys, time is money.
"I don't think you need to run to the attorney every five minutes when something comes up," Amrich said. "There are some things you can do in-house."
But Amrich isn't satisfied. In his eyes, the tabs are still too high.
"We want to cut it more," he said. "We want to save more money."
Unusually high bills
Amrich crushed one-term incumbent Debbie Herrmann in April's local election. His slate mates -- trustees Mark Beeson, Keith Johns and Tony Sciarrone and Clerk Teresa Ponio -- defeated Herrmann's allies by wide margins, too.
Reducing Island Lake's legal costs was a key part of Amrich's campaign platform.
Those bills -- acquired by the Daily Herald under the Freedom of Information Act -- have totaled more than $1 million since 2009, far more than most other Lake County towns.
Lincolnshire, a town with a population similar in size to Island Lake's, averages about $12,500 in legal bills each month, or $150,000 annually.
Fox Lake, another relatively small town, averages about $17,000 in legal bills a month, or $204,000 each year.
Vernon Hills, a much larger village, pays its lawyers about $27,400 a month, or $328,800 annually.
Ancel Glink had represented Island Lake in most legal matters since 2005 -- the same year Amrich's first stint as mayor ended after 20 years.
But it was the bills incurred during Herrmann's term, which started in 2009, that drew the most fire.
That year, the village was charged $217,987 for legal services, according to the Daily Herald's analysis. The sum rose to $235,846 in 2010.
The bills skyrocketed to $438,800 in 2011.
A primary cause was a power struggle between Herrmann and a four-member majority of the village board over attorneys' fees, mayoral powers and other issues.
Herrmann even sued the trustees.
During the six-month fight, village officials were represented by Ancel Glink's lawyers and McArdle, which further boosted costs.
Once the lawsuit was settled out of court, the bills dropped to $348,072 in 2012.
Because of the bills, Ancel Glink became a target for some angry residents. Some called the lawyers vampires on social media.
But McArdle doesn't fault Ancel Glink's attorneys for the charges. The bills were high, McArdle said, because village officials called on the firm a lot.
"The lawyers were doing what they were asked to do," McArdle said in an email. "You cannot blame the attorneys for taking on the work."
Herrmann couldn't be reached for comment.
'This can't go on'
Disgusted by the bills, Amrich promised to fire the Ancel Glink legal team if he won the spring election. The firm beat him to it by quitting.
"This can't go on," Amrich said of the spending. "It just about broke the village."
That's only a slight exaggeration.
This fall, an audit revealed Island Lake's police pension fund was underfunded by nearly $389,000, in part because money that was earmarked for that account went to pay the legal bills.
Officials haven't yet come up with a plan to restore the fund.
To replace Ancel Glink, village trustees hired McArdle and Diamond and LeSueur the night new board members took office.
McArdle attends board meetings and handles a variety of issues for the board and mayor. Diamond and LeSueur prosecutes traffic cases in McHenry County court.
The firm worked for the village during Amrich's first stint as mayor, and he was happy with their performance.
Additionally, attorney Rudy Magna handles traffic cases in Lake County court. Magna had the job during Herrmann's tenure and has continued under Amrich.
With new lawyers aboard, the monthly bills immediately decreased.
Ancel Glink charged the village $44,827 in April, its last full month of service. When McArdle's first bill arrived in June, it was for roughly $16,713.
Diamond and LeSueur's bill that month was for a relatively meager $2,732.
McArdle's bills each month since then have been less than $18,000. They dropped below $10,000 twice, in August and September.
It's not that Ancel Glink's attorneys charged more for their services than the firms that replaced them, McArdle said. Their hourly rates are comparable, he said.
"If there is responsibility for excess legal bills, it really does not rest with the attorneys," McArdle said.
"As with any legal relationship, it is the client who initiates (a) request for services."
With that in mind, Amrich deliberately tries to keep costs down by phoning McArdle relatively sparingly.
"We don't call him for every little thing that happens," Amrich said. "You don't need to rely on the attorneys so much."
Bills may drop more
McArdle believes the village's monthly legal costs will continue to drop once some issues held over from Herrmann's tenure -- including some lawsuits, personnel matters and the police pension shortfall -- are resolved.
Beeson, a rookie trustee who ran on Amrich's slate, said he'd like to see the bills drop to about one-third of what they had been under Herrmann's leadership. That would be about $10,000 a month.
The money being saved should then be spent on park projects, sidewalks and road repairs, Beeson said.
"There's plenty of work to be done," Beeson said.
Island Lake's legal billsIsland Lake's legal bills
*Firms changed in May 2013
Source: Village of Island Lake