A year ago, the notion of a unified front on the Algonquin Township board seemed an unlikely scenario.
But that scenario unfolded Wednesday night when the board revisited $107,000 in unpaid road district bills at the center of an alleged salt shortage emergency that had residents concerned Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser would shut down township streets.
The board unanimously rejected those bills, 5-0.
Later in the night, Trustee Melissa Victor called for Gasser’s resignation, a symbolic gesture that drew applause from residents in the audience and had other trustees echoing her sentiment.
“I’ve never seen anything even close to the incompetence, either intentional or not, that’s been showed to us in this personality,” Trustee Dan Shea said.
“If he would be willing to help us to find an acceptable replacement,” Trustee Dave Chapman said, “then I would support the other trustees in asking Andrew to step down.”
Gasser did not attend the meeting and could not be reached for comment.
‘We’re protecting our taxpayers’
The packed meeting featured appearances from TV news crews curious whether the board would approve payments for 1,161 tons of road salt Gasser bought from Kansas supplier Compass Minerals without going through the state-mandated competitive bidding process – an apparent violation of Illinois Highway Code that now is at the center of an official misconduct investigation.
Before the vote, township attorney Jim Kelly delivered a legal opinion about whether the transaction between Compass Minerals and Gasser is valid and lawful.
The road commissioner may have put the salt out to bid in December – after his failure to follow state law came to light and the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office opened a probe – but governments are prohibited from such behavior, Kelly said.
“You can’t go back in time to ratify that unlawful contract,” Kelly said.
Trustee Rachael Lawrence said the salt situation could have been remedied months ago.
“I believe the proper thing to have done back in October, when I first brought it to his attention that it was unlawfully bid, would have been to return the salt,” Lawrence said.
“We’re doing our job,” Chapman said, “and we’re protecting our taxpayers.”
Residents and visitors from all over McHenry County took to the lectern Wednesday night and raised a common question: Where is the highway commissioner?
“Gasser’s down in Mississippi? He sent in the bills? He can’t even be here?” Mike Tauler said. “I’m up in Wonder Lake. I’ve been to more meetings than he has. Somebody needs to be here from his department, if not him, to answer these questions.”
Hours before the board met Wednesday, a FedEx package from Gasser arrived at Supervisor Charles Lutzow’s office.
Inside the package was a multiple-page list of road district bills Gasser wanted trustees to review and approve at the meeting, along with signatures to attest those bills.
Tracking data showed that Gasser dropped off the package at 2:05 p.m. Tuesday at a FedEx shop almost 800 miles away in Madison, Mississippi.
Chapman said the road commissioner should stay in the Magnolia State.
“The conversations we’ve had tell me that would make him happy,” Chapman said. “I doubt being in Algonquin Township makes him happy. Why do I expect that? He spends a lot of time down there.”
On Gasser’s personal Facebook page, there’s a photo of him wearing a Mississippi State hat and a tag: #HAILSTATE.
A webpage recently popped up on ResearchGate that shows Gasser is a student at the school in Starkville, a Mississippi city 720 miles away from Algonquin Township offices.
The Northwest Herald used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Gasser’s road district calendar and learned that the road commissioner has spent time off in Mississippi. In Madison, where Gasser sent the package to the township Tuesday, the temperature hit a high of 67 degrees.
Meanwhile, McHenry County residents have been dealing with wintry weather conditions and drifting snow that led to multiple road closures in the past couple of days. Gasser sent the FedEx package from Mississippi on the same day he signed his name to an affidavit that warned he might have to close down roads if the department runs out of salt.
Emergency motion denied
The highway department’s Woodstock-based attorney, Robert Hanlon, asked a judge Wednesday morning to order the township to approve payment to Compass Minerals.
Gasser reserved 2,500 tons of salt at $91 a ton – a $227,500 order. But in an email to Gasser on Jan. 24, Compass Minerals threatened to pursue legal action and suspend the delivery of the remainder of the 2,500 tons of reserved salt if the company did not receive payment for past due bills.
“I may be forced to close the various roads of the road district due to the inability to salt the road,” Gasser said in an affidavit.
In a public post published Tuesday night to the road district’s Facebook page, Gasser said it is not his department’s fault if supplies empty.
“If we run out of salt, it is because of the trustees refusing to pay a legal bill and not because we didn’t act in time,” Gasser wrote. “Shame on the trustees for turning this into their political circus.”
On Jan. 9, Algonquin Township officials unanimously voted, 5-0, to table the Compass Minerals salt bill. During a closed session on that January night, Gasser leveraged his cooperation in an unrelated lawsuit settlement to pressure township officials into approving payment for the salt.
Despite Gasser’s emergency plea, the township’s attorney said the road commissioner could acquire additional salt from other municipalities if there truly was an emergency.
“He is attempting through this motion to ratify an unlawful contract,” Kelly said. “That’s all that it is.”
Judge Thomas Meyer called the issue at the heart of Wednesday’s hearing a “political question” that is better suited for local government than a courtroom.
“Why is it an emergency if he can get it from other jurisdictions?” Meyer said.
Hanlon suggested continuing the hearing for two weeks so Gasser could explore the option, but the judge refused and denied Gasser’s request without prejudice.
“That tells me it’s not an emergency,” Meyer said.
• Northwest Herald reporter Katie Smith contributed to this story.