A federal judge has backed the mayor of Fox Lake’s contention he had the right to fire a building commissioner who strongly backed his political opponent, tossing most of the former official’s litigation against the suburban Chicago village and its mayor for wrongfully firing and retaliating against him for exercising his constitutional free speech rights.
However, the judge declined, for now, to similarly let off the hook a Fox Lake businessman who is accused of funding the new mayor’s campaign on the condition he fire the building commissioner who had initiated a condemnation process responsible for shuttering a historic hotel the businessman owned in the village.
U.S. District Judge Manish S. Shah of Chicago's federal court ruled in favor of the Village of Fox Lake and Mayor Donald Schmit earlier this month, when he dismissed multiple counts in a suit brought by former Fox Lake Building Commissioner Francisco Urbina.
The suit arose in December 2013, about seven months after Schmit took office and terminated the employment of Urbina and another village employee, Tina Williams, identified as an administrative assistant who had been employed in the village’s building department under Urbina’s supervision. She is also named as a plaintiff in the suit.
Schmit terminated the employees without first gaining the consent of the Fox Lake Village Board.
The firings followed a tumultuous campaign for mayor between Schmit and former Fox Lake Mayor Edward Bender. Both of the fired employees, Urbina and Williams, had been outspoken supporters of Bender in the campaign.
Schmit was aided in his campaign by the financial support of Fox Lake businessman Peter Jakstas, owner of the Mineola Hotel that is located on the shores of the lake from which the village derives its name.
According to published reports, the hotel dates back to the turn of the 20th Century, and reached its heyday as a vacation hot spot for wealthy Chicagoans. In the decades following, however, it fell increasingly into disrepair, and in 2011, the village, under Urbina’s guidance, initiated building code enforcement actions against the Mineola and Jakstas.
Jakstas fought to keep the hotel and its restaurant open, but in 2013, was forced to shutter the building. According to an article published in the Northwest Herald in October 2014, Jakstas put the Mineola up for sale.
In addition to blaming Urbina for closing his business, Jakstas has publicly indicated he believes the stress from the closure action precipitated the death of his 42-year-old daughter, who suffered a heart attack as he battled the village in court.
Because of his connection to Schmit and the firings, Jakstas was named as a defendant in Urbina’s 17-count federal complaint against the village and the mayor.
In his Jan. 5 ruling on the defendants’ motions to dismiss Urbina’s counts, Shah said he believed the village and Schmit were justified in terminating Urbina.
Despite Urbina’s arguments to the contrary, the judge backed the village’s assertion that Urbina as building commissioner was a policy-making appointed official, and not a regular village employee, so he didn't enjoy the same level of protection under the First Amendment, and his employment was subject to the mayor’s discretion.
The judge further held that because Urbina’s firing came in May, after his annual employment term had expired, the mayor did not need to clear his decision with the village board, per the village’s ordinances.
Jakstas, however, could still face legal trouble stemming from the matter.
While political speech, including campaign donations are constitutionally protected, a quid pro quo – donating to a campaign in return for a particular political favor – is not, the judge said.
“It is wholly plausible to believe that Jakstas agreed to finance Schmit’s campaign on the condition that Schmit terminate those responsible for both shuttering Jakstas’ business and precipitating his daughter’s death,” Shah wrote. “While the facts may not bear this theory out, the theory may stand for now.”
Court records show that on Jan. 6, the case was referred to Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown for the purpose of holding a settlement conference. The docket entry notes, "In light of the court's ruling of 1/5/15, all parties are open to the possibility of settlement." A date for the settlement conference is expected to be set at an initial status hearing before Brown on Jan. 15.
Records show Urbina and Williams are represented by Bradley Edwin Faber and Keith L. Hunt of Keith L. Hunt & Associates. Jakstas is represented by Chicago attorney Elliot M. Samuels while the village and its mayor are represented by Jeannine Stephanie Gilleran and Patrick John Ruberry of Litchfield Cavo in Chicago.