By Bob Uphues
Rocco DeSantis resigned as a North Riverside trustee on April 17, saying he won't fight an Illinois Appellate Court decision that his status as a police officer on duty-related disability leave made him ineligible to serve as an elected official.
His resignation was effective immediately; he attended his last village board meeting on April 15.
"I've submitted a letter resigning my position as trustee," DeSantis said, "being that the courts have ruled the jobs are incompatible. I totally disagree with the ruling."
Hubert Hermanek Jr., who was elected mayor on April 9, indicated that he would name a replacement for DeSantis at a special meeting of the village board of May 13. That person would serve out the remainder of DeSantis' term, which expires in 2015.
Asked last week if he had a candidate in mind, Hermanek said, "A decision hasn't been reached yet."
He also wished DeSantis well.
"He served his constituents well," said Hermanek of his would be-be mayoral opponent. "He had to make a difficult decision, whether to retire or resign as a trustee. I respect his decision and wish him well in his future endeavors."
It's been a whirlwind four months for DeSantis, who in late December 2012 submitted nominating petitions seeking to become North Riverside's next mayor. In 2011, he rocked the local political scene when he topped a field of six candidates and was elected as a trustee.
A former North Riverside police officer who went on disability pension after 30 years of service, DeSantis and political ally H. Bob Demopoulos took the ruling VIP Party by surprise, winning two of the three trustee seats up for grabs.
Two years later, he had his sights set on the top job in the village, and he assembled a full slate of candidates under the Transparency & Accountability in Politics Party banner to challenge VIP once again.
This time, VIP was ready to push back.
North Riverside resident and VIP Party ally John Beresheim challenged TAP's nominating petitions and singled out DeSantis. He argued that because DeSantis had not officially retired as a police officer and instead opted for a disability pension, DeSantis was still technically an active duty officer.
Beresheim used a 1983 court case in which a Tinley Park police officer on a leave of absence was elected village trustee. A court ruled in that case that the officer was ineligible to serve, because he had the ability to return to active duty. As such, his jobs as both police officer and trustee were incompatible.
A local electoral board made of up of VIP officials sided with Beresheim on all of his objections, one of which contended that the official TAP Party name was too long. The party and DeSantis appealed the local board's ruling to Cook County Circuit Court.
A county judge ruled only on the matter of the party name, striking all of its candidates from the ballot, but leaving open the matter regarding DeSantis' eligibility to serve.
DeSantis went to the Illinois Appellate Court, asking it to overturn not only the circuit court's finding, but the local electoral board's ruling as well. While the appellate court reversed the circuit court ruling with respect to the party name, that court agreed with the local electoral board with respect to DeSantis' ineligibility to hold office while on a disability pension.
While he had the option of taking the matter to the Illinois Supreme Court, DeSantis chose to accept the appellate court ruling.
DeSantis' attorney Richard Means, in an email Tuesday afternoon to North Riverside Village Attorney Eric Hanson, explained that the appellate court's ruling "clarifies that further defense of Mr. DeSantis' qualifications would be fruitless."
Asked if he considered simply retiring from the police department and removing the main objection to his eligibility, DeSantis said he always believed he would prevail.
"I felt the ruling would go in my favor," DeSantis said. "I really thought we had a win situation. I really thought the [Tinley Park] case didn't apply."
Making his resignation official would also have financial implications for DeSantis. Duty-related disability pension payments made to DeSantis are tax-free and he also receives free health insurance.
The electoral challenge cost TAP $7,000, according to a filing submitted to the Illinois Board of Elections. DeSantis also incurred other legal fees related to a separate complaint filed by North Riverside Mayor Kenneth Krochmal, seeking to have DeSantis removed as trustee using the 1983 Tinley Park case as precedent.
There was a third lawsuit filed by North Riverside's paramedic contractor against TAP and its individual members for libel related to statements made on the Tap Party website.
Prior to the election, DeSantis told the Landmark he had incurred legal fees edging close to $20,000 to fight the lawsuits.
"It was all politically motivated," said DeSantis. "If you don't believe that, I'd like to see the color of the sky in your world."
DeSantis tried to mount a last-ditch write-in campaign for mayor, but the Cook County Circuit Court ordered the Cook County Clerk not to include DeSantis' name on a list of eligible write-in candidates and not to count any write-in votes he received on April 9.
Hermanek Jr., the VIP Party candidate, ended up alone on the April 9 ballot and was elected mayor with 815 votes, according to unofficial totals released by the county clerk.
DeSantis said that even though he was forced out, he accomplished what he set out to do two years ago.
"I opened a lot of eyes to the inner workings of the village," said DeSantis. "If people start going to meetings and making sure that the village is accountable to them, then I've won."