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Board members, some grudgingly, approve back pay for Gardner
Posted By Staff On January 29, 2010 @ 10:29 am In Happening Now | No Comments
• News and notes from the Jan. 28 Winnebago County Board meeting
By Stuart R. Wahlin
The Winnebago County Board voted 25-2 to issue $6,870 to board member Carolyn Gardner (D-9) after Judge Ronald Pirrello (D) ruled that Gardner is entitled to $5,500 in back pay for a year Pirrello and the Illinois Supreme Court say Gardner should have been serving on the board. Pirrello also ordered that $1,369.71 in related legal expenses be paid to Gardner.
Gardner prevailed after a year-long court battle for the seat of the late Mary Ann Aiello (R-9), who passed away in 2008. Ted Biondo was appointed as Aiello’s successor, and believed his appointment was to serve the remainder of her term, which wasn’t to expire until the end of 2010.
Democrats, however, seized an election statute indicating that if more than 28 months remain in an unexpired term, a special election must be held in the next general election, which would have been in November 2008.
Gardner attempted to file for the special election, but Biondo did not. Pirrello upheld Gardner’s candidacy for the special election, in which she would run unopposed, but a last-minute ruling at the appellate level determined there would be no election for District 9, and that Biondo would serve the remainder of Aiello’s term.
The Illinois Supreme Court, however, subsequently sided with Democrats by upholding Pirrello’s interpretation of the 28-month statute.
During the Jan. 19 board meeting, when the ordinance was introduced for a first reading and two-week layover, Frank Gambino (R-14) unsuccessfully tried to block the court-ordered payment, because Gardner had not paid a $377 traffic fine from 2004 for allegedly driving uninsured. Gambino wanted the ordinance sent back to committee until it could be proven the fine had been paid.
Gambino, Kyle Logan (R-3), Tom Owens (R-1), Lynne Strathman (R-1), John F. Sweeney (R-14) and Fred Wescott (R-9) voted in favor of sending the matter back to committee, but the motion failed.
Gardner has now reportedly agreed to have the fine deducted from her back pay.
Before a final vote Jan. 28, a number of Republican board members voiced their distaste for the payment to Gardner that was about to be approved.
Wescott indicated he’d vote “yes,” but wanted the record to show he would be doing so under protest.
Similarly, Logan said he’d also vote “yes,” but that he believed Pirrello “missed the ball” in his ruling.
“I completely disagree with the decision that was reached by Judge Pirrello,” Logan asserted. “However, we are a nation that follows laws, and if the judge ordered it and we have no further recourse, then I believe that would be what we need to do.”
Although he would vote in favor of the payment, Rick Pollack (R-13) urged Gardner to return the money to the county.
“Most of us that serve on the County Board…don’t do it for the money. Part of the money that we do receive is costs incurred while we come here to meet,” he said. “I would ask the recipient to consider returning the check back to the county board fund.”
Although most of his Republican colleagues would concede to vote in favor of the payment, Gambino held his ground.
“I know that the court has ordered us to do this, and Judge Pirrello felt that that was necessary, and I know it’ll probably pass tonight,” Gambino acknowledged. “But there is, in some respects, a higher order than our court system. That’s the one of personal respect and integrity. And I don’t believe that recipient has earned and/or deserves this money. …They weren’t there to serve their constituency or the county.”
Gambino echoed Pollack’s suggestion that Gardner return her check to the county.
“There’s a lot of pain going around,” Gambino added. “People are paying their bills and paying their taxes through their hard-earned blood, sweat and tears. I think it’s an injustice that Judge Pirrello would order us to pay this money at this time.”
Gardner did not speak in her own defense during discussion, or comment to the press afterward, but Mel Paris (D-8), the only Democrat to speak to the issue, urged colleagues to just do what’s been ordered by the court.
“If you look at it from a practical standpoint, this is not any different than a state mandate,” he noted. “We have been told that this is what’s gonna happen by the courts. And regardless of whether you like or don’t like it, we just need to go on with the business at hand, get the thing over with and move forward.”
In a roll-call, only Gambino and John F. Sweeney (R-14) voted “no.” Gardner abstained.
A public hearing was conducted regarding the issuance of $13 million in bonds for the purpose of the county meeting its court-ordered obligation to pay settlements and related costs resulting from a 2006 fatal traffic accident involving a sheriff’s deputy.
Deputy Joseph Boomer was acquitted in 2008 of criminal charges after his cruiser struck a car crossing Weldon Road at West State Street. Boomer was responding to a call at high speed without using a siren or flashing emergency lights. Brothers Aaron and D.J. Bachman were killed in the crash, which left their sister, Kori, permanently disabled.
In civil court, however, the county was ruled liable for the accident and ordered to pay $17 million in related settlements. The county’s insurance for such tort obligations was only $5 million, resulting in the need to issue up to $13 million in alternate bonds to cover the remaining costs.
During the hearing, there were no questions or comments from board members or the public.
After a closed session, board members unanimously approved four claims by county employees. The closed session came after Rick Pollack (R-13) requested further information regarding the nature of the claims. Doug Aurand (D-3) voted “no” to going into closed session, arguing Pollack should have done his homework before the meeting.
Permanent disability claims in the amounts of $18,676.08 and $40,000 were approved for Eric Beitel and Joseph Williams, respectively, for injuries sustained as employees of the Sheriff’s Department.
A $30,773.76 personal disability claim, plus $11,756 for a Medicare set-aside account, was approved for David Lutyens, who sustained injuries as an employee of the Highway Department.
A $20,000 permanent disability claim by Galen Harms was approved for injuries sustained as an employee of River Bluff Nursing Home.
The board also allocated $82,819 for the purchase of hardware and software needed for the completion of the county’s new court and case management system, which is expected to go online in April.
Board members also approved an agreement for the Village of Pecatonica to participate in the county’s permitting system for oversized and overweight vehicles to travel on county roads.
In addition to discussing the aforementioned permanent disability claims, board members convened in closed session for a briefing by State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato (D) regarding an investigation into the suspected mishandling of funds in the county’s animal services division. Because the investigation is ongoing, officials aren’t commenting.
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