There’s a joke township insiders tell: What’s the difference between God and the highway commissioner?
The highway commissioner gets a free truck.
The sentiment is that they are too powerful under current law, free to spend money and set budgets with little oversight, untouchable in their autonomy – a world where it’s their way or the highway.
But Algonquin Township officials challenged that notion Monday night, when trustees voted, 4-1, to slash Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser’s proposed legal budget from $250,000 to $150,000.
Trustees Dan Shea, Melissa Victor, Dave Chapman and Supervisor Charles Lutzow voted to cut the budget for fiscal 2019 by $100,000.
Trustee Rachael Lawrence voted against it.
Before the vote, Gasser made his case for his proposed budget. The first-term highway commissioner referenced a May 8 letter he received from his Woodstock attorney, Robert Hanlon, who billed the department more than $276,000 last year in a complex, expensive labor battle and already has billed more than $62,000 this year.
The letter cited a 2008 case – Village of Montgomery vs. Aurora Township – and a line from the court’s opinion: “[Township officials] must approve the budget presented by the highway commissioner.”
“As such, there is no legal basis for any township official or the Algonquin Township board to do anything but approve your budget,” Hanlon wrote. “I suggest that you share the attached opinion and this letter with the board before they inadvertently act in a fashion that will create more legal expense than already exists.”
Township attorney James Kelly contended that Hanlon and Gasser are wrong and township officials have more authority than what the highway department duo is suggesting.
“It is what it is,” Gasser said. “I’ll deal with it.”
Lutzow said he hopes the vote sends a message to the highway department.
“We would love to see the legal fees not be the same as last year,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Victor has been an opponent of Gasser’s spending choices since they both took office in 2017, when the highway commissioner and Hanlon’s firm – charging as much as $515 an hour – stoked the drama of multiple lawsuits.
She took Hanlon’s letter as something more than legal advice.
“I took it as a threat,” Victor said.
The first-term trustee characterized Hanlon’s legal fees as “absolutely absurd and ridiculous” compared with other attorneys involved in the lawsuits.
“He’s trying to rob the township,” Victor said.