After he won the election but before he took his oath of office, Algonquin Township Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser consulted paving magnate Gary Rabine to rate the roads.
For free, an employee of the Rabine Group – a multimillion-dollar company known for its work in roofing, snow removal and paving – drove township roads gathering data with a 360-degree camera to condense into a report for Gasser before his first day in office.
A Northwest Herald investigation revealed that Gasser intended to privatize parts of the Algonquin Township Highway Department, but the unionization of his employees derailed his plans.
“I would love to have it so the road district guys maintain drainage and the snowplowing and allow the paving to be outsourced,” Gasser told the Northwest Herald. “It’s not going to happen because of all the legal stuff that’s going on.”
Between Feb. 28, 2017, and May 15, 2017, a group of Algonquin Township Highway Department employees spotted a red Rabine Group vehicle driving roads, stopping and surveying at certain intersections.
Their reaction to Rabine’s unexpected visit is at the heart of a question the Northwest Herald set out to answer: Why did the Algonquin Township Highway Department employees unionize?
In short, the answer is simple: The Rabine sighting scared them.
A private report
The Rabine Group offers clients – including Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s, large companies sitting on large swaths of pavement – a service called a Pavement Condition Index.
Known as PCI for short, the index assigns a value range from 0 (worst) to 100 (best) to describe the current condition of concrete and asphalt pavements. This rating system provides reporting on the pavement’s current condition and data for predicting expected pavement needs years into the future.
After Gasser won an upset election over his predecessor, Bob Miller, in February 2017, Rabine got a phone call.
“He called up and said, ‘Hey, Gary, I’d love to come in and talk to you,’ ” Rabine told the Northwest Herald. “Gasser wanted to know about our pavement management.”
“I needed to know which roads were screwed up,” Gasser said. “He drove his car and did a basic report of the roads.”
Rabine’s company conducted the report for free, Gasser and Rabine said.
The Northwest Herald asked Gasser for a copy of that report. He declined.
“It’s not mine to give,” Gasser said. “It’s property of the Rabine Group.”
Since the report happened before he was sworn into office, Gasser said, he was acting as a private citizen, and the information Rabine’s company provided him is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. In response to the Northwest Herald’s Freedom of Information Act request for the documents, Gasser wrote, “There are no reports.”
“I did it because I knew I was going to be the highway commissioner, and I would have to do road projects,” Gasser said. “There’s no ‘I’ll scratch your back and you’ll scratch mine’ kinda deal going on.”
The Northwest Herald asked Rabine for a copy of the report. He did not respond.
“No money was exchanged,” Gasser said. “No promises were made.”
An emergency contract
About two months after Gasser took office, his workers encountered another Rabine sighting, one they believe justified their fears.
In July 2017, Gasser and his crew discovered a culvert beneath Dennis Avenue had failed.
“The first person I called was my engineer,” Gasser said, referring to Matthew Cesario, project manager at Bollinger, Lach & Associates, a DuPage County engineering firm based in Itasca.
Cesario looked under the Dennis Avenue culvert, Gasser said, and determined it needed to be closed. Gasser spent 20 minutes assembling a team.
“We’ve got to find ourselves a bridge builder,” Gasser recalled saying. “Rabine has done this before.”
The highway commissioner declared the failing culvert on Dennis Avenue an emergency, pardoning him from the typical bidding process required by law in most building situations.
Rabine Paving, a division of the Rabine Group, signed on to the project to perform “emergency repair work.” The private company billed $264,226.
For engineering services, Bollinger, Lach & Associates billed $81,653, bringing the project total to more than $345,000.
Within minutes of taking office May 15, 2017, Gasser fired three union employees, two of whom were the sons-in-law of his Miller. The firings sparked a complicated legal battle with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 that has cost the highway department hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Gasser has refused to accept the union contract of his employees as a binding document.
“I repudiated it,” said Gasser, who campaigned on ending nepotism and patronage inside the road district. “I don’t even want to know what it says.”
Rich Fahey, Local 150’s business representative, said the unionization in large part stemmed from Rabine’s visit.
“That is exactly why they unionized,” Fahey said. “They were afraid of the privatization and outsourcing of their jobs. He had Rabine on the roads.”
Derek Lee, a son-in-law of Miller and the department’s former foreman, said word of privatization filtered into the road district from political circles on the outside.
“We had heard his plan was to completely privatize the road district, meaning we would be out of jobs,” Lee said. “We saw Rabine driving around and assumed he was putting together a quote of what it would cost to do the roads. It made us all a little nervous.”
Gasser denied there was a plan to give road district duties to Rabine. The Rabine Group CEO said he did not talk with Gasser about such a project.
“They thought that I was going to fire everybody,” Gasser said. “There’s no conspiracy.”
But the Rabine Group, Gasser said, is qualified to take over paving duties of his road district. The commissioner described Rabine as “the Elon Musk of road paving.”
“There’s always been talk about privatizing the highway department. There are parts that Rabine has proved he can handle,” Gasser said. “He’s a brilliant businessman. Why wouldn’t we want to use his cost-cutting techniques to save money, even if he makes some money?”