Algonquin Township highway commissiner avoids jail by starting union arbitration steps
A Lake County judge ruled Tuesday that Algonquin Township's embattled highway commissioner Andrew Gasser has met the required threshold to avoid jail on a contempt of court charge for not starting arbitration hearings with the highway department's union.
Attorney Robert Hanlon told Lake County Judge Dan Jasica that Gasser has done what the court previously ordered and has begun picking arbitrators to resolve complaints filed against the highway commissioner by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Because the purpose of the contempt charge was "not to punish, but to get them (Gasser) to comply with the court's order," Jasica said Gasser purged the charge in court Tuesday afternoon.
Attorneys for the union argued Gasser should remain in contempt of court out of fear he will continue to delay the arbitration hearings going forward. In addition, the union attorneys are bringing Gasser back to court on May 14 to argue that he should pay for legal fees racked up by the union regarding previous court issues.
The cost of the legal fees is unknown at this time.
"It's clear the court saw the error of its prior order," Hanlon said after court, referring to the contempt charge.
Gasser said he was "glad the case is purged," but added his beef with the union is in the "appellate court process."
The nearly two-year court battle with representatives of Local 150 started when Gasser fired three employees moments after being sworn in as highway commissioner in 2017, officials said.
The employees he fired were former McHenry County Board Member Nick Chirikos, and two sons-in-law of his predecessor, Robert Miller. However, the three were also union members at the Algonquin Township Highway Department.
The firings sparked labor disputes with Local 150, which reported the firings to the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The labor board alleged the firings were without cause and unlawful, and ordered Gasser to honor the union contract.
Gasser filed a lawsuit to have the union contract with Local 150 invalidated, but that lawsuit was dismissed by Jasica in August. The case was sent to Lake County after judges in McHenry County recused themselves due to a conflict of interest.
After ignoring requests to set up arbitration with the union, Jasica found Gasser in civil contempt of court in March. At that time, he ordered Gasser to meet with the union on arbitration before the April 9 hearing or he would be sentenced to a fine or jail.
The case remains in the appellate court regarding Jasica's decision to dismiss Gasser's lawsuit. If the appellate court overturns the judgment, the union contract could be voided. But, if Jasica's dismissal is affirmed, the highway department could be forced to cover back pay, contract damages and legal fees.
"Although the court has ruled Mr. Gasser has met the minimum requirements to avoid consequences today, I'm hopeful Mr. Gasser will continue to expediently comply with the court's order and stop the bleeding of taxpayer dollars," said Algonquin Township Trustee Rachael Lawrence.