A February 2015 decision by the Village Board of Trustees to hire a special lawyer to defend the village on one case has led to the firm representing the village in eighteen other matters according to a Freedom of Information response to the Oak Lawn Leaf’s request for public documents.
At a February 2015 “special meeting”, the Oak Lawn Village Board voted 4-1 to hire Ben Gehrt to appeal the $3.2 million dollar arbitration award recently entered against the Village in favor of the firefighters. Gehrt is an attorney with a reputation of vigorously advocating for management in disputes with unions.
The motion approving Gehrt’s firm was limited to that one matter and the village is already represented by its village attorney, Paul O’Grady on some of the same issues. Despite those facts, the Oak Lawn Leaf has learned that Gehrt’s firm has represented the village in contract negotiations, arbitration cases, disciplinary matters, and Illinois Labor Relations Board cases. The firm has also been billing the village for “general legal counseling and advice” and “legal advice in specific cases”.
The original recommendation to hire Gehrt was for the one specific case. The recommendation, accepted by the Board of Trustees, came from Village Manager Larry Deetjen.
Gehrt, a partner with the law firm of Clark Baird Smith LLP, has represented other governmental bodies in several disputes with labor. He represented the City of Rockford in a case against the Illinois Association of Firefighters and was able to reduce minimum manning staffing levels.
Minimum manning has been an issue of contention between Village Manager Larry Deetjen and the union members even though the labor contract between the parties states that minimum manning is set at 21.
In a previous story about the original decision to hire the firm, a source close to the negotiations between the Village of Oak Lawn and the Oak Lawn firefighters said that Gehrt has “a reputation as a union buster”. Gehrt was recently brought into negotiations with the firefighters’ union for the most recent contract negotiations for his expertise with the minimum manning issue.
In the last legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly passed a minimum manning law that states that minimum manning is a subject for collective bargaining. Oak Lawn, however, was already subject to minimum manning provisions in a contract it signed prior to the new law. Nonetheless, the village under Deetjen’s leadership decided to reinterpret the minimum manning provision.
In January of 2008, the Village of Oak Lawn shut down a squad unit when there were insufficient firefighters at work. The Village management chose to shut down the unit rather than to pay overtime to firefighters that would have been called into work.
A few months later, the Village Board, at the recommendation of Village Manager Larry Deetjen and the then Finance Committee Chairman Tom Phelan, voted to eliminate six firefighter positions despite opposition from the union.
The union filed various successful actions against the village and the village responded, again at Deetjen’s suggestion, to not fill vacant positions when union members retired. At that time, Deetjen, without any public discussion with the Board of Trustees, began counting the “Battalion Chief” as one of the 21 members mandated by the minimum manning ruling.
Thus far, Gehrt has had success on the minimum manning issue at the state administration level but it remains under appeal in the State Appellate Court.
Mayor Sandra Bury and the current board majority have been previously criticized for “union busting” when they voted to privatize the 911 Dispatch Center and fire 20 union village employees.
The village’s response to the Oak Lawn Leaf’s request for information provided “numerous matters” that the firm has received payments for from the village. However, the Oak Lawn Leaf had requested the payments that were made to the firm. The village granted part of that request by providing the list of legal matters but “denied in part” some of our request, failing to provide us with the amounts of the payments. The Oak Lawn Leaf plans to appeal that decision by the village’s administration.