The village of North Riverside’s bid to privatize its fire department suffered a setback last week when a Cook County judge denied the village’s motion to delay contract arbitration with the firefighters union.

Judge Diane Larsen on Dec. 18 sided with North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714, saying the village had not proven it would suffer irreparable harm by allowing arbitration to proceed. 

While acknowledging that the issues of pension obligations and the ability of the village to pay those costs were serious, those issues can be dealt with before a panel of arbitrators, which has already been chosen by the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

“All of these issues can be raised in arbitration,” Larsen said.

North Riverside’s attorney, Burt Odelson, said he would file an appeal with the Illinois Court of Appeals the first week of January to try to prevent arbitration from proceeding.

The village filed a lawsuit in September asking for a judge to invalidate its contract with firefighters. The contract expired April 30 and the two sides engaged in several negotiating sessions before the village claimed the two sides had come to an impasse.

Odelson reasserted the village’s claim in court on Dec. 18 that “the village is fighting for its financial life” in the face of pension obligations it can’t pay. North Riverside for several years during the past decade either underfunded its pension obligation or paid nothing into its fire pension fund.

As a result, the Illinois Department of Insurance has ordered the village to either fully fund its pensions or risk having sales tax revenue seized to pay the pension obligation, beginning in 2016.

“[It will be] a disaster for the village if we go to interest arbitration,” Odelson told Larsen.

The two sides have an arbitration session scheduled for Jan. 22. That session will take place unless the appellate court overturns the circuit court’s decision.

J. Dale Berry, the local attorney for the firefighters union, successfully argued that the village had more than a year to work out the issues through the arbitration process. The village filed suit, he said, asking [the judge] for permission to breach that agreement.”

State law, Berry argued, was clear that the firefighters contract could not be summarily invalidated by the village.

Larsen did not rule last week on the broader question of whether the village can summarily terminate its contract with the firefighters union. The two sides will appear again in Cook County Circuit Court on Jan. 14. At that time, Larsen is expected to rule on the union’s motion to compel the village to hand over records related to its discussions on privatizing the fire department with Paramedic Services of Illinois (PSI).

The village contends it is simply asking for the judge to determine a matter of law, which does not require extensive discovery. In any case, Odelson said, there are no records other than the ones it has provided to the union already.

The union argues that the village never bargained in good faith and had already begun negotiating with PSI about privatization before sitting down at the bargaining table with firefighters.

There is a separate complaint on that issue and the union’s contention that the village engaged in retaliation against firefighters, which is pending before the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

It’s unclear when Larsen will issue her ruling on the village motion for summary judgment, but it won’t happen until at least Jan. 14.

While Odelson said Thursday’s ruling gives no indication of how Larsen will rule, Berry was optimistic that things were breaking the union’s way.

“I’m pretty confident that, on the issue of their underlying claim, it’s not well-founded,” Berry said. “This was their big moment.”

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