By Bob Uphues
When North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. picked Tom Gaertner to assume the role of deputy fire chief back in January, it sure looked like an audition, though the term was never publicly uttered.
The village's fire chief, Brian Basek, had announced his retirement the previous fall, but a contested mayoral election and an unsettling labor-management situation left Hermanek grasping for qualified candidates.
So Basek agreed to stay on indefinitely, and Hermanek agreed to hire a deputy chief, a position that had remained unfilled for years due to budget constraints. Hermanek turned to Gaertner, who retired in 2015 as Broadview's fire chief and served as deputy director of the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy (NIPSTA), as the new No. 2 in command.
Less than a year later, on Dec. 1, Gaertner assumed the duties of North Riverside fire chief after a brief search.
"It was my hope all along," said Hermanek, who confirmed that none of the handful of people he considered for the job was an in-house candidate.
And the mayor also allowed Gaertner to handpick his deputy chief. Gaertner selected his longtime friend, Patrick Schey, who retired as a lieutenant with the Morton Grove Fire Department in 2014 and who for a decade had worked alongside Gaertner at NIPSTA.
Hermanek interviewed Schey and came away impressed.
"I was immediately impressed and offered him the job," he said.
Schey also began his new job as North Riverside's deputy fire chief on Dec. 1. Gaertner's starting annual salary is $130,000, while Schey's is $84,000.
Gaertner assumed the chief's post at something of a transitional time. While the hangover from three-plus years of labor strife stemming from an attempt to oust union firefighters and hire a private firm to provide those services still lingers, it's slowly receding.
The village still awaits a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court on whether it will consider the village's privatization lawsuit. Odds are the court will decline to hear the case, at which point it will most likely end up in the hands of a labor arbitrator.
The village's union firefighters have been working without a contract since April 30, 2014.
Gaertner says arbitration is where he'd like to see the matter settled.
"That's what I'm hoping for,' Gaertner said. "And once it's settled, whether it's four or five years, we'll be right back to the negotiating table again. I hope we can get wages settled through arbitration and then start new negotiations, with new faces at the table."
Asked what his message was to those union firefighters, Gaertner said he wanted employees to view the change at the top as a new slate.
"I think what I'm bringing in is a fresh set of eyes," Gaertner said. "I wasn't involved in the turmoil, and I don't have any grudges. Let's start over and try to mend some fences."
As for the union's reaction to the change in command staff, Chris Kribales, who is president of North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714 told the Landmark, "The union is very excited to work with two respected and progressive thinking chiefs here at the North Riverside Fire Department."
Gaertner also immediately faces something of a staffing crisis. With the recent retirements of three firefighters, including Basek, the department is short about five firefighters. Gaertner was also informed last week that Lt. Doug Rayburn would be retiring in January.
The new chief said he has contacted the North Riverside Civil Service Commission, which is in the process of recommending two new hires, who could be on board as early as January.