CRYSTAL LAKE – Taxpayers in Algonquin Township could be on the hook for mounting legal costs in a labor dispute where one attorney is charging $515 an hour – an unheard of amount, one expert said.
Legal fees from a law firm hired by the Algonquin Township Highway Department in a dispute with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 have topped $130,000 since May.
Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser was sent a bill for $23,512 on Oct. 5, records show. One township trustee is fearful the bills could put the taxing body in financial trouble.
“I’m so scared he’s going to bankrupt the township and we’re not going to have a township in three years,” Algonquin Township Trustee Melissa Victor said.
Gasser said he’s not concerned about bankrupting the municipality. He said complaints about his spending are political.
“I don’t think any of the trustees are lawyers,” said Gasser, who added he has spent 45 percent of his budget since he took office on improving recycling and finishing road projects ahead of schedule. “This is local politics used by trustees who ran against me, and [they] are using this as a political football.”
Since June, Robert T. Hanlon & Associates has represented Gasser and the highway department in a fight against Local 150 and the Illinois Labor Relations Board. For his work in multiple union cases, Hanlon charges Gasser and the department $375 an hour, according to billing records obtained by the Northwest Herald.
Billing documents show that labor attorney Michael Ernest Avakian also has helped Hanlon in his work for Algonquin Township. Charging $515 an hour, the Washington, D.C., attorney spent hours researching, editing and finalizing responses regarding the union, according to October billing records.
In total, Avakian logged $10,711.50 in bills through Hanlon’s office. Avakian’s work appeared on an Oct. 5 bill that Hanlon charged the department for $23,512. Hanlon’s office charged a total of $131,016.60 between May and October, according to billing records.
At Ancel Glink, a law firm specializing in local government work, attorney Keri-Lyn J. Krafthefer and her associates represent 450 cities and 50 townships and road districts. In her 29 years as a lawyer, Krafthefer said she has never seen a township pay so much for a lawyer.
“In most of our townships, we don’t charge $10,000 a year for all of their legal work,” said Krafthefer, who charges her clients about $195 an hour. “Never have I seen those types of rates involved. I don’t know any other public sector attorneys that get paid that much.”
James Kelly, the lawyer who usually represents Algonquin Township, charges $200 an hour.
Algonquin Township trustees have no authority in choosing which lawyer represents the highway commissioner or how much that lawyer is paid, said Trustee Dan Shea, who is “extremely concerned” with the highway department’s bills.
“I personally don’t like to see this fabulous amount of money spent that the public gets no benefit from,” Shea said. “I’ve always treated the public’s money like it’s my own, and I’m cheap.”
Township officials are concerned Hanlon is not doing a good enough job for the money he’s been paid.
On Sept. 28, Administrative Law Judge Deena Sanceda ordered the highway department to rehire three employees Gasser fired on his first day in office with back pay and interest. Sanceda ordered the employees be rehired because Gasser and Hanlon never responded to the labor complaint.
“I think the township needs to look into filing a malpractice lawsuit,” Victor said. “He is not showing up, and nothing is getting done.”
The consequences could be expensive. Sanceda ordered the Algonquin Township Highway Department to rehire the three employees and repay them for all financial losses, including wages and benefits, with compounded interest at a rate of 7 percent.
Because the highway department did not respond to the complaint in time, Local 150 attorneys filed a motion for a default judgment.Sanceda granted that request Sept. 28. By not responding, the highway department waived its right to a hearing and admitted to the unfair labor allegations, Sanceda said.
In a motion to fight the judgment, Hanlon said he was not in the country when Sanceda’s notice showed up.
“At the time of the motion for default, attorney Hanlon was in France,” according to the motion.
Further, the “purported motion for default” landed in a “junk mail” account, the motion said, “and no actual notice of any default motion was known by attorney Hanlon, upon which he might have notified the Algonquin Township Board of Supervisors.”
Victor called that an unacceptable excuse.
“Why are we getting charged so much money?” Victor said. “The line items say research. I understand lawyers have to do research. However, in three months, $130,000 for research?”
Hanlon does not have malpractice insurance, according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. The attorney was not available for comment. A call to Hanlon went unanswered Thursday.
Algonquin leaders hope to see an end to bills soon.
“I’m looking for this to end, and I’m not looking to support additional funding for any of the lawsuit,” Algonquin Township Trustee David Chapman said. “I cannot in good faith continue to allocate more Algonquin Township tax dollars with no end in sight.”