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Peru 'plows out' firefighters' driveways

Julie Ajster, attorney.
Julie Ajster, attorney.

Peru's fire chief acknowledges his department uses a city vehicle to "plow out" firefighters from their homes.

But an attorney says she has filed a complaint with the police that the city illegally used its equipment last weekend to clear snow from a firefighter's driveway.

In a statement to the city, attorney Julie Ajster said she witnessed a fire department plow clear the firefighter's driveway shortly after noon Sunday in Dalzell, a small town just northwest of Peru. Shortly after, she said, the firefighter returned home in a pickup truck with a utility trailer, which had an ATV in back. In an interview, she said the ATV had a plow.

She sent an email about the situation to Fire Chief Jeff King, who replied "we use this vehicle to plow out firefighters."

King and Mayor Scott Harl didn't return messages for comment.

In an email Tuesday, Ajster informed the mayor and the fire chief she submitted the complaint to the police department, alleging official misconduct. She said she was told the complaint would be referred to Police Chief Doug Bernabei.

On Wednesday, Bernabei said in a two-page letter to Ajster that the fire department's practice was legal. The fire department, which is made up of 80 percent on-call firefighters, responds to more than 300 calls annually. The on-call members, Bernabei said, do not staff the station, but rather carry pagers and respond to emergency calls from their homes either directly to the scene or to the station.

"(W)hen the fire department is paged to a house fire or a business fire, etc., the on-duty engineer immediately can leave the station in an engine, does so usually alone and meets a team of firefighters who can then immediate begin to suppress the fire," Bernabei said.

Because of this, he said, the fire department has a "long-sanctioned" practice to allow firefighters to use a department pickup truck to plow their driveways during or after major snowfall.

"This practice is clearly legal under Illinois law as the use of the plow and truck was an authorized act under Illinois law as well as public policy and practice," Bernabei said. "Frankly, I cannot (fathom) how any reasonable person (can) conclude otherwise."

In an interview, Ajster disagreed with the outcome, saying the firefighter was already away from his house, so he had the ability to respond to emergencies.

In an email to officials earlier this week, Ajster wrote, "(G)iven that this alleged crime involves a City of Peru employee(s), this matter may be better investigated by another law enforcement agency. I will leave that to Chief Bernabei's discretion."

Bernabei said there was no impropriety or conflict of interest with his agency handling the complaint or closing the matter as unfounded.

But he said in light of Ajster's "adversarial posture toward many people in local government" and recent lawsuits against the city of Peru, he advised Ajster take the matter to the state police. He said Ajster and others are free to question the merits of any local policy.

"I can assure you the city staff will review this situation to determine if the practice needs to be tweaked or otherwise revised, made more restrictive or even eliminated," Bernabei said.

In Ottawa, firefighters clear their driveways with their own equipment, Fire Chief Steve Haywood said in an interview.

"We take care of our own driveways. I have a snowblower. We're just like everyone else," he said.

He said he could imagine the city would get the streets department to clear the way to firefighters' homes if they were unable to respond to emergencies. But he said in his 30 years with the fire department, he couldn't remember such a circumstance.

The use of public snowplows for personal purposes is an issue that comes up from time to time in La Salle County.

Last fall, resident Brad Miller complained to the Marseilles City Council about the city's policy allowing its snowplow drivers to clear their own driveways with city equipment.

Miller, who plows Interstate 80 for the state Department of Transportation, said the city should bar the private use of city equipment. He said he would be fired if he used state property to take care of his own driveway.

In response, Jim Buckingham, the city commissioner in charge of the drivers, defended the city's practice, saying the employees work hard during snowstorms. He added employees must plow their driveways on their own time and could not use city equipment to clear others' driveways, including those of their neighbors.

In 2016, the issue of using a public snowplow for private purposes surfaced in Streator-based Bruce Township.

Trustee Steve Biroschik warned it was risky for Supervisor Henry Araujo to use a township snowplow to clear snow from private driveways. Araujo said he did so when he saw elderly people struggling with snow removal.

Biroschik said the service must be offered equally to all residents. But Araujo said it wasn't an official service of the township.

"If I see elderly people trying to shovel, I use the plow and it takes me five minutes," Araujo said at the time. "They tell me that they can't afford to pay. I say, 'We don't do this for pay.' We're here to help people."

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