Another Algonquin Township Highway Department employee fired by Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser needs to be rehired, according to an arbitrator’s decision released Thursday.
The arbitrator awarded former road district foreman Derek Lee back-pay and benefits lost during his time away from the department, minus any money he received from any other employment he had during this time period. The arbitrator said he would retain jurisdiction over the case to help with implementing the award.
International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 filed a grievance after Lee was fired by Gasser within 30 minutes of the commissioner taking office. Gasser also fired Andrew Rosencrans and former McHenry County Board member Nick Chirikos, and the union filed grievances for them, as well, although their decisions still have not been finalized.
Arbitrator Thomas Sonneborn said Gasser did not provide Lee with notice of any charges against him or an opportunity to be heard before his termination.
The union’s grievance, filed the same day, states there was a “lack of just cause” for termination. Union workers typically cannot be fired without just cause.
During his testimony, Gasser gave three reasons for firing Lee: A 2008 incident involving Lee firing a weapon at an abandoned automobile the commissioner believed was on district property; that Lee was a supervisor he didn’t need; and that Lee was a nepotism hire.
Earlier this month, a different arbitrator ruled that another employee, Dan Morrison – who was fired by Gasser on Jan. 11 for violating the department’s policy prohibiting smoking on the premises – also had to be rehired.
Gasser, who ran his campaign for commissioner on the issue of nepotism, claimed that his predecessor, Robert Miller, had hired his sons-in-law, Lee and Rosencrans, on the road district payroll, and nearly $500,000 in public funds were being paid among the family members.
However, Sonneborn wrote that Gasser did not inquire when Lee was hired or when he married Miller’s daughter. Lee was not related to Miller when he was hired.
“One would expect a public official to find out for certain who had been hired through nepotism and who had not before swinging the ax of termination,” Sonneborn wrote. “Commissioner Gasser did not.
“The very linchpin of his campaign for office was to eliminate nepotism at the district, and in his first official act to fulfill that campaign promise, the commissioner failed,” Sonneborn said.
Regarding Lee’s alleged shooting at a government vehicle, Sonneborn noted that nine years had passed between the incident, which happened before Gasser was in office, and Lee’s firing. He wrote that there was no investigation into the shooting incident, which Gasser said he observed on a YouTube video. The arbitrator also found no evidence of harm to a person or district property because of Lee’s actions.
There were no further incidents on Lee’s record, Sonneborn said.
Sonneborn wrote that Gasser made no effort to review Lee’s past employment history, skills or whether his services were needed when deciding to fire him. The arbitrator noted that Lee has a law degree and 19 years of service to the department.
“In his zeal to rid the district of any vestige of the Miller family, the commissioner violated the parties’ agreement by terminating the grievant without just cause,” Sonneborn wrote.
“The manner in which [Lee] was discharged missed the mark of just cause at every turn,” the arbitrator wrote. “The commissioner failed to provide even the most minimal due process to the grievant, denying him the right to be heard in advance of his termination as guaranteed by the constitution and by the agreement.”
Attorney Robert Hanlon represented Gasser, and Bryan Diemer represented Local 150. Gasser and Hanlon could not be reached for comment Thursday.
“We’re pleased but not surprised,” Diemer said. “It’s a pity it’s had to go to these lengths to get these folks back to work.”
Diemer said they still are in the process of calculating Lee’s back-pay.
“Our expectation is that Derek will be reinstated as soon as possible,” Diemer said.
Diemer said arbitrators in future cases, such as Rosencrans’ and Chirikos’, probably will view the facts similarly.
Lee had no comment other than to say through Diemer that he is pleased with the decision and anxious to return to work at the road district.