In the summer of 2001, Butch Diederich mentioned to a co-worker in Oak Park’s public works department that he was getting some plumbing work done on his house. The co-worker, a supervisor in the water and sewer division, told him the department took care of its own. He casually offered to send over his staff to do the work for free.
So, Diederich said, he took him up on the offer, thinking it was standard practice.
He didn’t realize he’d made a mistake until police detectives”who were investigating allegations that public works employees were doing side jobs on village time and in some cases with village equipment”knocked on his door. When asked, Diederich, who drove a street sweeper for the village, freely admitted to accepting the offer.
When questioned again, Diederich said he acknowledged it was wrong, because he’d been told days before by the police that it was.
In March of 2002, he was among the first employees fired by the village following the police investigation.
Three years later, Diederich, whose health is in rapid decline, is making a last push to get his termination reconsidered. So far, he’s had renewed support from his union, Teamsters Local 705, and the backing of Trustee Robert Milstein, who called at a public meeting last week for a third-party review.
Milstein said Diederich’s “only crime was stupidity,” and asked fellow board members to look at the issue with “compassion.”
“It’s the role of trustees to set policy, role of staff to execute policy. There comes a time when ethically we should reach out beyond those divisions,” he said. “During public works scandal, several were swept out, rightfully so. However, it’s my belief there needs to a review of this particular instance.”
In response to Milstein’s comments, Village Manager Carl Swenson said last week, “it’s unprofessional to publicly discuss any personnel matter.”
“It is an old matter. It was thoroughly reviewed. Any decision regarding termination is only made after a legal review,” he said.
At the time Diederich’s firing, Local 705 officials declined to fight the decision on his behalf, saying in a letter that he’d likely lose. The village argued, according to written correspondence with the union, that Diederich knew what he did was illegal and that, no matter what the supervisor said, he shouldn’t have accepted the offer.
Throughout the life of the public works scandal, the village stated there was a “zero tolerance” policy toward misconduct.
Three years later, Diederich’s union, headed by a new administration, requested that the village take a fresh look at the evidence. Bill Sullivan, a business agent for Local 705, said after taking over the case a month ago, he believes the “zero tolerance” policy was not uniformly applied to misconduct cases”both tied to and unrelated to the public works scandal. He said information regarding those other cases was not made available to union officials at the time of the firing.
“We see disparate treatment all throughout this case. It appears to me that other people had this work done and had not paid. Once they were caught, some people were offered an option to pay for the service,” he said. “In the Diederich case, they denied his request to make restitution.”
Citing many of the same perceived inconsistencies in treatment, Diederich said last week he’s just looking for “fair play.” And, more specifically, back pay and to be placed on the village health insurance policy. He needs a lung transplant, and can’t get on a waiting list unless he has insurance.
Milstein cited Diederich’s health as a motivating factor in his call for a review, saying this week he was “appealing to human decency.”
On Monday, Sullivan said he was surprised when he learned the union’s request for a new hearing was denied shortly after it was made. “I was sure the case would be re-opened,” he said.
Sullivan added that there’s not much the union can do now, as the date set by the statute of limitations has long passed.
“We are more in a begging position than in a demanding position,” he said.
And if political will is what could get the case re-opened, it doesn’t appear likely that there is enough.
“From the discussion I had with my colleagues, there’s a sense among them that the only real rationale for moving to re-open a case like this would be the production of new information that would not have been considered during the course of the original evaluation,” said Village President David Pope.
Pope added that there is a fear that the board shouldn’t be involving itself in personnel matters at village hall. Under Oak Park’s form of government, the village manager is the only employee overseen by the board.
“I heard pretty strongly a reluctance to get into any individual personnel issues. That is clearly defined as the area of responsibility of the village manager, and is handled through human resources practices and policies that are in place,” he said.