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District victorious in fire department dispute

GARDNER – The appellate court has upheld a previous court decisions regarding litigation between the Gardner Fire Protection District and the former Gardner Volunteer Fire Department – leaving the district victorious.

“The decision affirmed in total our motions. Unless the department seeks some type of petition to review from the supreme court, the matter is over,” said attorney for the fire protection district, Richard Porter of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP Wednesday.

“I personally don’t believe the Supreme Court would accept this case for review,” he said.

Contact with the department’s attorney, Tim Rathbun of Rathbun, Cservenyak & Kozol, was not immediately returned Wednesday. A call to former Fire Chief Randy Wilkey also was not returned.

The litigation first began years ago when the fire protection district terminated its contract for services with the volunteer fire department. Under that arrangement, the department, run by Wilkey, provided fire protection services to Gardner using tax dollars provided by the district.

The district accused the department of using its money for legal fees to argue an election for district trustees, Porter said. In addition, the department had a credit card balance of about $47,000 it refused to account for.

The department argued then it could not misappropriate its own funds.

The department then filed suit that the district terminated their contract “arbitrarily and capriciously,” and it was not in the district’s discretion to do so.

About a year ago, Judge Robert Marsaglia ordered the fire protection district had the right to terminate the contract of the volunteer fire department when the department no longer provided satisfactory services.

The department filed an appeal of Marsaglia’s decision.

Gardner officials were notified Tuesday that the Appellate Court of Illinois Third District’s ruled the original court properly granted the fire district’s motions.

“We cannot say that the district exercised its discretion arbitrarily or capriciously when terminating the agreement based upon the department’s refusal to comply with its reporting duties,” states the appellate court’s order.

“It would be disingenuous of the department to claim that the parties’ reasonable expectations included denying the district the ability to review the department’s accrual of the credit card charges,” it states later. “With an eye toward financial oversight, the agreement calls for the department to provide rather detailed budgets.”

After spending more than $100,000 in legal fees dealing with the litigation in recent years, the Gardner Fire Protection District board is relieved, said Gary Morris, president of the board.

“This cost us a lot of money, on both sides, especially our side because the taxpayers here paid for this,” Morris said.

“We’re happy with the decision and glad it’s over with,” he continued.

The whole battle between the district and department started when former department chief Wilkey refused to give the district board original receipts from which to pay the department’s bills, according to previous statements by district representatives and Wilkey.

Eventually, when Wilkey refused to give originals, the district refused to pay the bills. This led to the feud going to court and the district no longer recognizing Wilkey as chief.

In October 2013, when a previous ruling in favor of the district came in, the fire district and its new chief, Terry Jensen, took over the Gardner fire station. It had previously taken over equipment through court order.

When the department no longer had rights to the equipment, the district took over fire service to the village and was operating out of the village hall until it could acquire the building.

Since the district took over providing services, fire protection and ambulance service has gone smoothly under Chief Jensen, Morris said.

“Everybody in town seems to be happy with the job he is doing,” he said.

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