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By Bob Uphues
After a little more than seven months on the job, North Riverside's fire chief and deputy fire chief are out after Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. informed them of a change in direction during a brief meeting in the mayor's office at the Village Commons on July 13.
According to Hermanek, Chief Tom Gaertner and Deputy Chief Patrick Schey resigned, but Gaertner told the Landmark he was fired and that he hadn't submitted a letter of resignation. Neither man was offered a severance package; neither had an employment contract with the village.
"I'm shocked and I'm upset about it," said Gaertner in a telephone interview with the Landmark. "There was no reason for it, because we weren't doing anything wrong."
Gaertner said Hermanek would not specify the reasons behind the change, and that the meeting in the mayor's office lasted about 10 minutes.
"It's in the best interest of the village to do this," said Hermanek, adding that the reasons behind the change were "nothing bad" but were an "accumulation" of things.
Among Gaertner's shortcomings, according to Hermanek, was that he was a no-show for this year's Fourth of July fireworks, Gaertner also informed Hermanek he would not be available to attend a union/management arbitration session that had been scheduled for late June, but was later rescheduled.
"That raised eyebrows," said Hermanek. "I gathered he didn't want to sit on the administration's side at the hearing."
Hermanek said that Gaertner for a time also allowed two lieutenants to work the same shift, contrary to department policy.
"That potentially could have caused the loss of thousands of dollars," Hermanek said.
While saying the two men resigned, Hermanek admitted that he'd been conducting a secret search for a new fire chief for the past month.
Shortly after informing Gaertner and Schey of the change, Hermanek hired Scott Boman as the fire department's interim chief. Boman most recently served as assistant fire chief for the Oak Lawn Fire Department.
Hermanek called Boman "eminently qualified, more than any chief in our village's history."
"I'm satisfied [Boman] will do things that are in the best interest of the village," said Hermanek.
Boman, who will officially be sworn in at the village board's August meeting, moved into his office at the North Riverside fire station shortly after Gaertner and Schey collected their belongings and left.
Deputy Police Chief Christian Ehrenberg and Commander Dion Bobo accompanied Gaertner and Schey as they packed boxes in their offices. Police then drove the two men home from North Riverside.
Boman reportedly met with on-duty firefighters after arriving at the fire station to inform them of the situation.
Very few people knew about the impending change. Village Trustee Fernando Flores, who is the village board's liaison to the police and fire departments, was not informed of any change prior to it happening.
Flores told the Landmark he learned of the change via text message Friday afternoon.
"We are all in shock," Flores said.
What appears to have really damaged the chiefs' relationship with the mayor was the rapport the two chiefs had built with rank-and-file union firefighters.
Firefighter Chris Kribales, president of North Riverside Firefighters Union Local 2714, called Gaertner "one of the best chiefs in the department's history."
"The management style of these two was completely different from the previous chiefs," said Kribales. "We were working together to move forward.
"To say that this is a shock is an understatement."
Gaertner said he believed the cordial relationship he and Shey had with union firefighters was frowned upon by Hermanek.
"It's all political," said Gaertner. "I didn't fit their political agenda. I think politicians need to put their personal agendas aside and do what's best for the people in this town."
Hermanek disputed that characterization, saying he was "taken aback" by Gaertner's assertion that politics played a role in his departure.
"It's about how to properly run a department for the benefit of the residents," Hermanek said.
For the past four years, the administration and the fire union have been engaged in a bitter battle over staffing, including a failed attempt by the village through the courts to privatize the fire department.
In the face of attempts to break the union, firefighters responded by publicly supporting rival candidates for mayor and trustee, including Village Trustee H. Bob Demopoulos, who has long championed union firefighters' causes. During his 2015 run for mayor, Demopoulos dubbed his political committee "Save Our Firefighters."
Demopoulos said he thought Gaertner and Schey "have done a tremendous job. This is a big loss."
Union firefighters have been working without a contract since May 1, 2014. Both sides are scheduled to appear before a labor arbitrator on July 24 and July 31.
Kribales said the chiefs' ability to work with union firefighters could only have hurt them in the eyes of the village's administration.
"I believe the fact that these two worked with labor to move forward hindered them immensely," Kribales said.
Asked if such an assessment of the situation was accurate, Hermanek responded, "That's probably true. The chief and deputy chief work for the administration."
Gaertner said he was proud of his short tenure in North Riverside.
"It was an honor and a privilege for Pat and I to lead a group of such dedicated, hard-working firemen," he said.