Kadner: Costly Bremen Township school battle might finally end
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org January 7, 2013 5:32PM
Julienne Mallory is an elected trustee of the Bremen Township Trustees of Schools board. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 9, 2013 6:25AM
Acting on the advice of its attorney, the Bremen Township School Board on Monday night voted against giving tax money to board president Joseph Bertrand Jr. for his legal costs in fighting a group of local school districts and the Illinois attorney general’s office.
“It is my opinion that the board has no legal right or obligation to reimburse Mr. Bertrand for attorney’s fees in connection with the ... lawsuit,” John B. Murphey, attorney for the reconstituted school board, said in a written opinion to the trustees.
In April 2007, Bertrand won election to the three-member board, which basically oversees a treasurer who invests the money of seven local school districts and a special education cooperative. The township school treasurer’s office and the township board of school trustees are in no way connected to the Bremen Township government.
The lame-duck township school board refused to seat Bertrand, contending his election violated an obscure portion of the Illinois school code.
Bertrand was forced to file a lawsuit to obtain his seat, and a judge ruled the township school board had to sit him.
In 2010, Bertrand — who by then had become the president of the board — made a motion to award himself and his attorneys $220,000 for expenses incurred during the lawsuit.
Bertrand abstained from voting on the motion, board member Julienne Mallory voted “yes” and the third board member was absent.
Mallory declared the vote had passed 1-0.
That set into motion a string of lawsuits because local school districts, led by Bremen High School District 228, contended the township school board did not have the authority to spend tax money in such a fashion and had violated state law in the way it approved the settlement agreement.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan would eventually join the lawsuit against Bertrand and Mallory.
In 2011, a Cook County judge ruled that Bertrand violated the Public Officer Prohibited Activities Act in awarding himself and his attorneys the $220,000.
The judge also ruled Bertrand and Mallory violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by approving the payment.
The Illinois Appellate Court in September 2012 upheld the lower court ruling invalidating the Bertrand settlement.
The appellate Court also rejected Bertrand’s argument that his abstention be equated with a “yes” vote when the settlement was approved.
Because Bertrand had a financial interest in the proposed settlement agreement he was required by law to abstain on any such vote, the court stated.
The court concluded that to “construe such an abstention as a ‘yea’ vote would create an end run around the statute, allowing public officials to cast affirmative votes for contracts in which they had an interest by voting to abstain.”
As a result of the controversy, a state law was passed in 2011 that would eventually abolish elections for the Bremen Township Board of School Trustees.
Instead, new board members were appointed by each of the seven school districts the board serves. The three trustees elected to office, including Bertrand and Mallory, will be allowed to serve out their terms but will not be replaced.
This is the first time a township school board was reconfigured in such a manner in the state’s history.
Bertrand and Mallory eventually sought reimbursement from the township school treasurer’s office for legal expenses incurred due to the lawsuits brought by the local school districts and the attorney general.
“Reducing this question to its simplest terms,” attorney Murphey wrote, “I believe that a court would hold that paying taxpayers’ dollars to reimburse Mr. Bertrand for fees he incurred in Lawsuit No. 2 in his legal attempt to have the taxpayers pay his fees for Lawsuit No. 1 is contrary to law, a violation of public policy as expressed by the Appellate Court in this case, and therefore an illegal expenditure of public money.”
It is my understanding that Mallory was reimbursed $69,000 for her legal expenses, and the new township school board does not plan to file a lawsuit seeking recovery of that money.
“We just want to put an end to all of this legal mess and move on,” a new board member told me before Monday’s meeting.
I contacted Bertrand at the Hazel Crest Park District, where he serves as executive director, and he said, “I’m at work. I will not talk about anything that is not related to Hazel Crest park business at work.”
I actually sympathized with Bertrand’s original plight.
He ran for elected office and won yet was refused his seat on the board. While candidates for major elected offices such as Congress, the Legislature and governor may have large campaign war chests to fight legal battles resulting from their campaigns, candidates for school trustee positions are typically working stiffs who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars to obtain an attorney.
Nevertheless, the law seems clear that the candidate must bear the burden of such legal fights.
And the way Bertrand abused his position on the board to reimburse his attorney and himself seemed clearly wrong to me.
Bertrand was told his actions were illegal by the board’s attorney and attorneys representing the various school districts the board serves.
He chose to ignore all of that advice.
Hopefully, this is the end of a long legal battle that cost taxpayers money. The local school districts had to pay their attorneys, the attorney general’s office is funded with tax dollars and, of course, the judges who heard this case are state employees.
It was a shameful episode in local politics. And a waste of precious resources.