In a move that virtually no one saw coming outside of a precious few inside village hall, North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. terminated the village’s fire chief and deputy fire chief and replaced them with someone handpicked during a clandestine search over the previous month.

The mayor termed the departures of Chief Tom Gaertner and Deputy Chief Pat Schey as resignations, but that characterization flies in the face of all evidence – neither man had submitted a letter of resignation nor had they any intention of resigning until they were called into a meeting that afternoon and asked to do so.

Add the fact that Gaertner’s replacement was already waiting in the wings, and the “resignation” explanation really doesn’t hold up.

Pressed on the reason for the change, Hermanek offered a couple of reasons – one was that the chief hadn’t showed up for the Fourth of July fireworks and another was that he begged off a late June arbitration hearing. Even if you give those reasons merit, they occurred after Hermanek had already decided he was making a change.

And if Hermanek’s real problem was the chief, why was the deputy chief given the heave-ho as well?

The real reason is that, for whatever reason, the village wants to make life as miserable for its union firefighters as possible, and with Gaertner and Schey on board, they weren’t miserable enough. 

The relationship Gaertner was trying to build between the village administration and within the department itself didn’t suitably reflect the state of war that has existed between union firefighters and village hall since the summer of 2013.

This week, village and union officials begin sitting down with a labor arbitrator to come up with a path forward. Since 2013, the union has dunked on the village’s every effort to eliminate them as a bargaining unit, and we don’t believe that an arbitrator is suddenly going to get the village’s religion.  

We have no idea how the relationship between the union members and their new chief is going to play out. But we believe that the conciliatory attitude the former chief and deputy chief assumed was not going to make much of a difference to the arbitrator, who is trying to untangle four years of complaints and counter complaints between the union and village government.

And if the village of North Riverside is serious about saving money with respect to firefighting services, it might finally begin to seriously explore alternatives that it could sell to residents, such as the creation of a fire protection district.

We will continue to believe that privatizing public safety is not in the public’s best interest. If union firefighters are the future, and we have no reason to believe they won’t be, then the village and union have to start finding common ground.

We thought the hiring of Gaertner and Schey was a realization on the part of the village to do just that. But, in the blink of an eye, that’s thrown out the window. Perpetual arbitration is an expensive, demoralizing way to go through life.

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