Shelbyville Township Highway Commissioner Robin Robertson filed a lawsuit on Oct. 2, 2018 against Shelbyville Township, Township Supervisor Michael Holland, Trustee Thomas Fleshner, Trustee Julie Ambrose, Trustee Mitchell Shuff, and Trustee Ronald Zidek.
The case was set for oral arguments on Thursday, just prior to deadline, and they were heard by Judge Douglas Jarman.
The suit, which has already cost the township about $20,000, was over the highway commissioner's budget. Robertson declined comment on the lawsuit.
"The lawsuit boils down to the interpretation of Section 605 ILCS 5/6-501 which provides: 'The township board of trustees or highway board of trustees, as the case may be, at the public hearing shall adopt the tentative budget and appropriation ordinance, or any part as the board of trustees deem necessary,'" said Township Attorney Dennis Atteberry. "The language in dispute is what does 'or any part as the board of trustees deem necessary' mean. Mr. Robertson believes that this means the Board can only cut expenditure lines. The Board believes it means it can reduce line items."
Robertson's lawyer, Matthew DiCianni, agreed that the issue is a statutory interpretation. He made the argument that since the statute does not include the word "modify," the township cannot modify the highway commissioner's budget.
"That is the crux of the argument," said DiCianni.
"They (the township board) only have three options," said DiCianni. "They can accept the highway commissioner's budget, they can reject it, or accept one part and reject another part. We are not arguing that they do not have final approval, but they can't change item amounts."
Judge Jarman asked both sides, "How could this have been resolved? This is not the first time there has been a dispute about a budget?"
"We could have resolved it at the public meeting when it was submitted, but the highway commissioner didn't show up," Atteberry said. "Don't we have to get together? He doesn't attend the meetings."
Judge Jarman replied, "So, don't let him spend any money."
Atteberry said, "We gave him part of the money, but not all of it."
Case law was cited about this exact issue from other communities with different rulings, an instance in favor of the township and another not in favor of the township.
Jarman said he would take the "arguments under advisement" and when asked when he might have something to communicate about that, he said he was in no hurry.
So, what was the occasion for Robertson to sue his own township?
"Mr. Robertson was requesting a budget of $669,658.68," Atteberry said. "The Board reduced the budget to $459,308.68. This was calculated based upon the fact that in 2015, the expenditures by the Highway department was $400,715.58. In 2016, the budget was $709,691.69 which included $229,631.42 in the building and equipment fund. In 2017, the total expenditures was $311,692.98. So, outside of the 2016 year where the Road Commissioner spent almost a quarter of a million dollars on building and equipment fund, the budget approved by the Board for the 2018-19 budget, the Board deemed fair and reasonable. Ironically, the road commissioner only spent $394,520.00 of the $459,308.68 budget, as of March 15, 2019. Which, with hindsight, demonstrates that the Board was correct in approving only that part they deemed necessary."
Atteberry was asked by the Daily Union about suggestions that Robertson wanted to purchase a new backhoe.
"With regards to the Board not willing to appropriate funds to upgrade equipment, that is not accurate," Atteberry said. "As noted in 2016, the Board budgeted almost a quarter of a million dollars in the building and equipment fund. This year, Mr. Robertson wanted to purchase a new backhoe. The Board offered to have it examined by a third party, but this proposal was not accepted.
"The Board believes the backhoe is in good mechanical shape. It has lost most of its depreciation, and it did not make sense to use taxpayer money to purchase a backhoe, which the Board deems not necessary. This is also in light of the fact that numerous projects performed each year by Mr. Robertson, which requires backhoe services, is contracted out to a third party."
Atteberry explained the fiscal responsibility of the Board.
"It is important to note that the income coming in is less than $250,000.00 a year," Atteberry said. "The requested budget by Mr. Robertson was nearly two and a half times that. The Board has a fiscal and fiduciary responsibility to the voters to safeguard the tax dollars that are being spent."
The Daily Union inquired as to the amount of taxpayers' money spent for the lawsuit.
"You asked how much taxpayer money has been spent on this litigation," Atteberry said. "Mr. Robertson's attorney fees are approximately $10,386.32 to date. My fees are approximately $4,334.96."
In court on Thursday, Atteberry told the judge almost $20,000 had been spent on the lawsuit to that point.
Atteberry commented on the use of taxpayer dollars for this lawsuit.
"As it relates to the Road Commissioner, he is using tax dollars. It is budgeted," Atteberry said. "However, just because something is budgeted, does not mean it has to be spent. "It is frustrating for the Township Board to have to pay both our attorney fees and the attorney fees for Mr. Roberson, since we believe the litigation is frivolous."
"While the Board would have liked to avoid the litigation, it is not something we can prevent," Atteberry added. "The Board was sued, and it must defend itself. It has a duty to act as good stewards of the tax dollars of the community, it cannot just approve budgets without in good faith deeming it fair and reasonable."