Island Lake officials keep promise to reduce legal bills
In office now for more than a year, Island Lake Mayor Charles Amrich and his allies are keeping a campaign promise by holding the line on the village's attorney fees.
Bills from the village's main lawyer, David McArdle, have cost the town about $13,437 per month since Amrich took over as mayor in May 2013, a Daily Herald analysis shows.
That's significantly lower than the village's $36,233 monthly average in 2011, a staggeringly high peak. A different firm -- Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni and Krafthefer -- was the village's primary firm that year.
McArdle replaced Ancel Glink's team after Amrich and four slate mates won election in April 2013.
The board also hired lawyers from the firm of Diamond and LeSueur to take on other tasks previously handled by Ancel Glink. Even when the bills from the second firm are added to McArdle's, the monthly average for 2014 is a relatively paltry $17,269.
Officials have reduced the bills by calling a lawyer less often than their predecessors, Amrich said.
"We did tighten our belts here a little bit," he said. "We've been able to do a lot of things in-house."
Amrich hopes to continue the trend so money can be set aside for municipal projects, especially road repairs.
"They have been neglected and they are in dire need of resurfacing," he said.
Bills were targeted
Amrich trounced incumbent Mayor Debbie Herrmann in 2013. The candidates on his slate -- trustees Mark Beeson, Keith Johns and Tony Sciarrone and Clerk Teresa Ponio -- won big, too.
Reducing Island Lake's legal costs was a big part of Team Amrich's campaign.
Under Herrmann, Island Lake's legal bills -- acquired and monitored for several years by the Daily Herald under the Freedom of Information Act -- far surpassed those from most other Lake County towns.
The village's annual total rose from $235,846 in 2010 -- Herrmann's first full year in office -- to $434,800 the following year, records show.
The bills dropped slightly to $348,072 in 2012.
In comparison, Lincolnshire -- a town with a population similar in size to Island Lake's -- paid its lawyers about $150,000 a year during the same period.
"I told the former board on a number of occasions that a town the size of Island Lake should have much more modest fees than were being incurred," McArdle said in an email.
Island Lake's bills were unusually high during Herrmann's tenure, officials have said, because town leaders called on the firm a lot.
The village board also was deeply divided politically at the time, resulting in a legal battle between the mayor and four trustees that lasted for several months.
That fight was so costly that money earmarked for the town's police pension fund was diverted to pay legal bills, leaving those retirement accounts significantly underfunded for several years.
The current board is working to restore the fund.
What the lawyers do
McArdle is a partner with Zukowski, Rogers, Flood and McArdle. He attends board meetings and handles a variety of governmental issues for the administration.
Diamond and LeSueur prosecutes traffic cases in McHenry County court.
Attorney Rudy Magna handles traffic cases in Lake County court. Magna had the job during Herrmann's tenure, too.
The cost of legal services fluctuates from month to month for any town.
So far this year, the monthly average is about $13,061.
McArdle's lowest monthly bill arrived in March, covering $8,969 worth of charges. His costliest bill of the year -- for $14,439 -- came in January.
McArdle is on pace to bill the village about $156,732 for the full year. That would be Island Lake's lowest annual total for bills from the town's primary attorney since at least 2009.
McArdle said he's advised officials to call him only when staffers can't handle a situation. Additionally, he's requested they call once with several problems rather than every time an issue arises.
Officials also have saved money by handling recent union-contract discussions without McArdle unless his attendance was necessary, Amrich said.
"We've used him very sparingly in negotiations," Amrich said. "There's a lot of things you don't need an attorney in there for."
Diamond and LeSueur's bills typically are much smaller than McArdle's each month, ranging from less than $4,000 to more than $7,500, documents show. Twice this year, in February and May, the firm didn't bill the town at all, Ponio said.
Magna's monthly bills are even smaller, averaging $3,236 this year.
If the administration maintains its stingy pace, the savings could be considerable -- well into six figures over the next few years.
"It feels great," Beeson said.
Thanks to the savings, repair projects at village hall will continue, Amrich said. Tuckpointing, window replacements and other work has been done at the Greenleaf Avenue building recently.
But the majority of the savings should go toward roadwork, officials said.
"We know there's things we need to work on -- roads and curbs and the everyday things the people are using," Beeson said.