A south suburban firefighter has filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court to force the village of North Riverside to turn over records related to how much it has paid its legal counsel, Odelson & Sterk Attorneys at Law, in recent years.
Scott Moran, a Hickory Hills resident who is a lieutenant with the Homewood Fire Department, claims the village is stonewalling the request, which was sent to the village on Jan. 3 and seeks to determine just how much North Riverside’s attempt to privatize its fire department has cost the village in legal fees as Election Day draws closer.
The law firm representing Moran is Cornfield and Feldman LLP, which also represents North Riverside Firefighters Union 2714. The union’s attorney, J. Dale Berry said the union enlisted Moran to file a Freedom of Information request seeking vouchers for legal services.
Moran, said Berry, has filed similar FOIAs in other towns and has had success in obtaining the documents.
In this instance, according to the lawsuit, the village at first did not respond to Moran’s Jan. 3 records request. The Illinois Attorney General’s public access counselor sent a letter to Village Clerk Kathy Ranieri on Jan. 20 asking about the delay.
More than a month later, on Feb. 28, having heard nothing from North Riverside, the public access counselor emailed Ranieri for an update. On March 16, the public access counselor notified Moran that he’d been in touch with the village’s attorney “recently” and that the law firm was reviewing invoices and would respond soon.
With a mayoral election pitting incumbent Hubert Hermanek Jr. against two challengers less than a month away and the privatization bid still unresolved, Moran filed suit to try and force the village’s hand.
“The voters have a right under FOIA to know the total cost of this litigation to inform their vote in choosing a candidate for mayor,” the lawsuit states. “It is imperative that the requested documents be produced prior to April 4.”
Village officials have been reluctant to put a firm number on legal costs related to the fire privatization bid. During an endorsement interview with Hermanek and challenger H. Bob Demopoulos on March 15 at the Landmark’s offices, Hermanek estimated the costs related to privatization at $100,000, a figure Demopoulos questioned.
Hermanek argued that the privatization effort was a fraction of the legal bills paid by the village since summer 2014 when he announced the idea. He pointed out that the village was also paying to defend itself against dozens of union grievances, unfair labor practice claims and a wrongful termination complaint.
Berry dismissed such separation of claims, saying, “It’s all part of this. It’s all part of this legal theory of [attorney Burt Odelson] that once the union contract expires, one can terminate it and bypass interest arbitration.”
As for just how much of the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to Odelson & Sterk since mid-2013, when the firm was picked to represent the village, Berry said it’s unclear exactly how much is related to fire privatization because the village has blocked efforts to find out.
“We just want to get out that they are stonewalling us,” Berry said. “We have some information, and it’s no less than several hundred thousand dollars.”
Reached by phone on March 27, Hermanek said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet.
Examining the village’s annual treasurer’s reports gives an idea of just how much Odelson & Sterk has benefitted from representing North Riverside.
During fiscal year 2013-14, the first year it represented North Riverside, prior to the privatization effort, Odelson & Sterk was paid $111,470, which was more than the village’s prior legal counsel, Mahoney, Silverman and Cross, was paid in 2012-13.
In the three fiscal years prior to 2012-13, the village paid Mahoney, Silverman and Cross no more than $75,800 annually.
But during 2014-15, the year Hermanek launched the privatization effort, the village paid Odelson & Sterk $416,118 and followed that up with another $281,142 in 2015-16. The village has not yet published its treasurer’s report for fiscal year 2016-17, which ends April 30.
But in its 2016-17 operating budget, officials estimated legal costs related to the fire department alone at $100,000. No money was budgeted for “privatization” per se.
Since the firm was hired in May 2013 through April 30, 2016, the village had paid Odelson & Sterk about $808,000.