Ex-Wauconda Twp. highway department employees allege they were fired as political payback

 
 
Posted4/15/2019 5:40 AM
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  • Two former Wauconda Township highway department employees have filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying they were fired as political retribution for backing the losing candidate for highway district commissioner in 2017.

      Two former Wauconda Township highway department employees have filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying they were fired as political retribution for backing the losing candidate for highway district commissioner in 2017. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Wauconda Township Highway Commissioner Scott Weisbruch

    Wauconda Township Highway Commissioner Scott Weisbruch

  • Wauconda Township Supervisor Glen Swanson

    Wauconda Township Supervisor Glen Swanson

Two former Wauconda Township highway department employees claim they were fired because they supported the losing highway commissioner candidate in the 2017 election, according to a federal lawsuit.

Plaintiffs Joseph Wightman and Donald Rowe are suing Wauconda Township Highway Commissioner Scott Weisbruch, Wauconda Township Supervisor Glenn Swanson and the township highway department.

Wightman and Rowe say their constitutional rights to free speech and due process were violated when they were fired by Weisbruch in May 2017, shortly after the election. Both men campaigned for Weisbruch's opponent, James Munson.

The lawsuit requests Wightman and Rowe be reinstated as highway maintenance workers and be awarded lost pay and benefits. The plaintiffs also request unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Weisbruch said he was unaware of the lawsuit before being contacted by the Daily Herald about the case. As of late last week, neither he nor Swanson had been formally served with copies of the complaint.

"I look forward to our day in court," Weisbruch said.

The lawsuit was filed April 6 in federal court in Chicago.

Township highway departments are distinct governmental entities and are not overseen by the township board or supervisor. Under state law, it's up to highway commissioners, not township supervisors, to hire and fire highway department employees.

Weisbruch was elected highway commissioner in April 2017 and took office that May. Swanson has been township supervisor since 2005.

James Munson's brother, Joe, preceded Weisbruch as highway commissioner.

According to the lawsuit, Swanson and Joe Munson had a "political falling out" over Munson's prioritization of certain roadway improvements and snow-removal methods and equipment.

The lawsuit alleges that Swanson directed highway department employees to work on certain projects and that Joe Munson told his team to ignore Swanson's instructions.

Swanson led Weisbruch's candidate slate in the 2017 election, serving as chairman of the group and contributing to it financially, Illinois State Board of Elections records show.

James Munson ran independently for highway commissioner. His brother supported his campaign, as did Wightman and Rowe, the lawsuit states.

Shortly after Weisbruch was elected, Swanson confronted Wightman and Rowe and attempted to fire them even though he isn't legally empowered to do so, the lawsuit states.

Swanson subsequently said the men would be fired when Weisbruch took office, the lawsuit alleges.

Wightman and Rowe were let go on May 26, 2017, the complaint states -- less than two weeks after Weisbruch became highway commissioner.

The complaint alleges Swanson insisted Weisbruch fire Wightman and Rowe in retaliation for backing James Munson and in return for Swanson's campaign support.

The lawsuit alleges Wightman and Rowe have suffered "substantial losses," including lost salary and benefits and emotional distress.

After reviewing a copy of the complaint provided by the Daily Herald, Swanson called Wightman and Rowe "two former employees (who) have conjured up a bunch of misrepresentations and untruths to convince an attorney to prepare and file a lawsuit."

Swanson said he and Weisbruch will refute the allegations whenever they're "legally invited" to do so.

The case isn't the only courtroom battle involving a staffing dispute in a suburban highway department.

Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser has been embroiled in a nearly two-year fight with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 that began when he fired three employees after taking office in 2017.

The union reported the matter to the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which said the firings were unlawful and ordered Gasser to honor the union contract. Gasser filed a lawsuit to have the contract invalidated, but the case was tossed by a judge. He is appealing.

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