Waterman village president faces potential $23K lawsuit with village over holiday train fire clean-up

‘I was told I had 14 days to get everything out of the park or they were going to scrap it. I was told I have to pay $23,000 for the scrapping.’

The Waterman Village Board of Trustees holds a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021.

WATERMAN – The Waterman village president won the April 2021 local election as the sole write-in candidate for the office three days after a fire destroyed his holiday train beloved by the community.

Now, Waterman Village President Pete Robinson, 74, who also is founder and owner of the Waterman & Western Railroad in Waterman, may be sued by his own village for the amount of money the village paid for removal of the charred train remains.

Robinson said there will be no more holiday lights train because the village didn’t want to work with the railroad anymore. He described what happened as being thrown out of Waterman Lions Park, where the train used to be stored until it was destroyed by fire earlier this year, and then scrapped in the spring.

“I was told I had 14 days to get everything out of the park or they were going to scrap it,” Robinson said. “I was told I have to pay $23,000 for the scrapping.”

Waterman Village Trustee Sarah Radtke said during the Dec. 14 Village Board meeting the village is planning next steps, which could include a statement of intent to take Robinson to court over debt repayment.

The village also formed a Special Committee on Fire Cleanup, which held a meeting Dec. 7, according to village of Waterman records.

“The statement of intent will be delivered to Waterman and Western Railroad, Pete Robinson and Charleen Robinson,” Radtke said. “If it is not resolved in full in 10 days, we’ll file a complaint and then ask for arbitration.”

Bill Porter, attorney for the village of Waterman, confirmed the deadline is 10 working days, through Dec. 29.

Radtke said the village would ask as part of the settlement that Robinson be dismissed as village president.

“Because he would owe a debt to the village,” Radtke said.

Robinson ran write-in campaign as the sole candidate for president of the less than 2,000-resident village during the April 2021 local election, receiving a total of 23 votes, according to election data. His term is scheduled to expire in April 2025.

Village code allows for a pro tempore mayor, meaning the Board of Trustees would appoint one of its members to act as mayor during the elected mayor’s temporary absence or disability.

The Village Board voted, 5-1, to approve the next steps as outlined during the Tuesday meeting. Trustee Raymond Calhoun was the lone “no” vote but was not available for additional comment following the vote.

“I have many reasons to why I voted no,” Calhoun said Wednesday. “At this point in time, I do not want to go into detail.”

A fire April 3, 2021 caused an estimated $250,000 worth of damage to the Waterman and Western Railroad. The Waterman and Western Railroad is a quarter scale 15-inch gauge train located in Lions Park, 435 S. Birch St. in Waterman, that hosts a free Holiday Lights Train for Christmas and other holiday-related trains throughout the year. (Photo provided)

According to documents the Daily Chronicle obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the village initially notified Waterman and Western Railroad in March 2021 it no longer would allow the railroad to run in the spring.

Village officials told Charleen and Peter Robinson in a March 18 letter that the couple was required to remove the property so the village could begin to construct a splash pad in April.

“Because Western and Waterman Railroad Inc. is no longer a valid corporation and no longer maintains the requisite insurance to operate its amusement ride, it is in breach of its contract with the Village,” Heather Neveu, an attorney for the firm representing the village, wrote in the March 18 letter.

Neveu sent an April 6 letter to the Robinsons, demanding they inform their insurance carriers of the fire damages at the park. and that, per the railroad’s leasing agreement with the village, the Robinsons’ company is on the hook for any damages to the property.

“As a result of the fire, the storage shed is a total loss and will need to be completely rebuilt,” Neveu wrote.

Neveu also wrote in the April 6 letter the Illinois State Fire Marshall’s office was investigating what caused the fire. The next day, however, Neveu followed up with another letter stating that village officials were notified the Robinsons were possibly planning an unauthorized clean-up event, adding that the scene still was the site of an active fire investigation and may be unsafe with flammable materials and accelerants still at the site.

“Anyone who arrives at Lion’s Park this weekend to remove or clean the fire scene will be removed by the police,” Neveu wrote in the April 7 letter. “Anyone entering the fire scene without express permission from the Board of Trustees will be charged with trespassing. If you wish to remove trailers or other property that are outside the fire scene, you may remove those belongings.”

Village officials sent another letter to the Robinsons on April 14, demanding they remove the train, ticket booth, operating equipment, train tracks and decorations from the park by 4 p.m. April 16.

“If you fail to remove your property as demanded, the village will take all reasonable and necessary steps to remove the property from Lions Park,” Darryl Beach, former Waterman village president, wrote in the April 14 letter. “The village will not bear any responsibility for storage or damage to property that is not timely removed.”

Charleen Robinson wrote in an undated letter in response to Beach that the lease between Waterman and Western Railroad ran through July 31, 2021, and village officials did not provide a written 30-day notice to the railroad for any breach of lease. She wrote that the village expressing the desire to build a splash pad at the park and giving the railroad two weeks to remove its equipment back in March violated terms of their lease.

“The village has yet to provide WWRR with notice of a breach of the lease, which is 1. proper under the lease and 2. legally sufficient under the law,” Charleen Robinson wrote.

Village officials estimated the cost to remove the equipment and restore the park and start building a planned splash pad would be $23,300 and fire debris removal would cost $25,800, according to village documents. Trustees were open to considering other bids suggested by the Robinsons, but the village could not allow them to organize a volunteer event to remove the train materials from village property due to liability concerns.

“The Board of Trustees will notify you when the work in Lions Park is scheduled,” Neveu wrote in an April 28 letter. “Please remove your trailers and other personal property from Lions Park as soon as possible.”

Neveu wrote in a May 18 letter to the Robinsons that, because of work at the park beginning on May 19, all property had to be moved by May 28. The village later demanded on June 7 a $22,640 payment from the Robinsons for fire debris removal.

Members of the village’s special fire clean-up committee recommended to allow Waterman and Western Railroad until Oct. 1 to reimburse the village for the fire debris removal, according to a July 14 letter to the Robinsons from Neveu.

“If you do not satisfy this debt to the village by Oct. 1, the Special Committee will reconvene in order to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees to commence suit against Waterman and Western Railroad Inc. and against both of you in your individual capacities,” Neveu wrote.

Pete Robinson said after the Tuesday vote he maintains he hasn’t done anything wrong.

“We just got to let it play out,” Robinson said.

Robinson said he expects the matter to go to court and for it to remain in court for a few years.

“This will be a battle for the next three years,” Robinson said.

Over the past 25 years, Robinson estimated that the Waterman & Western Railroad gave half a million free Christmas train rides.

Since the holiday train rides were free, Robinson said he estimated the number of attendees based on how many cups of free hot chocolate were handed out. Most years averaged between 20,000 and 25,000 cups of hot chocolate, with the most year having 27,000 cups.

Robinson said that he sold all the remaining Christmas decorations from the scene to a holiday lights show in Batavia.

“They won’t use the decorations this year, but eventually they will be added into their show,” he said.

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