Village of Waterman sues village president for $28K worth of clean up costs after fire destroys holiday train

“Right now, I’ve never had my day in court,” Waterman Village President Pete Robinson said. “This is all the village board telling me what I have to do. Well, they don’t tell the mayor what to do. The mayor tells them what to do.”

WATERMAN – The Waterman village president is being sued by his own village for nearly $28,000, about what the village paid for removal of the charred remains from his holiday train after it was destroyed by fire last year.

Waterman officials say they asked Village President Pete Robinson to remove the train debris from Waterman Lions Park after the April 2021 fire and later to reimburse the labor, and he didn’t comply. Robinson says he wasn’t given sufficient notice and didn’t do anything wrong.

Nearly a year after the fire, the lawsuit comes as a result.

Village officials allege in DeKalb County court documents that Robinson, 74 – who also is founder and owner of the Waterman & Western Railroad – breached the land lease he had with the village for his storage shed where he kept the train materials. The train was once a Christmas tradition for area residents, a local tourism draw where the Robinsons offered family friendly holiday rides. The lawsuit claims the railroad was not in good standing with the State of Illinois as a corporation and did not have adequate insurance at the time of the fire on April 3.

Robinson said Wednesday he maintains he, his wife and Waterman and Western Railroad – all named in the lawsuit – have not done anything wrong. He said he will concede if proven wrong, but won’t resolve the issue until it’s addressed by a judge. He said he’ll only resign as mayor if a court of law tells him to.

“Right now, I’ve never had my day in court,” Robinson said. “This is all the village board telling me what I have to do. Well, they don’t tell the mayor what to do. The mayor tells them what to do.”

The village also claims it paid $25,800 to remove fire damaged materials from Waterman Lions Park and another $1,840 to the Waterman Fire Protection District, adding the fire was allegedly due to negligence on Robinson’s part, according to court documents.

As a result, the village is asking the owners of the railroad for $27,640, plus attorney’s fees, documents show. The village is demanding the railroad case to be heard by a 12 person jury.

The village is also requesting that Robinson vacate the village president’s office, should the court rule in favor of the village. He ran a write-in campaign as the sole candidate for the president of the fewer than 2,000-resident village in April 2021 and received 23 votes, according to election data.

His term is scheduled to expire in April 2025.

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)

Train troubles

Village of Waterman records show Robinson made officials aware of the expiring insurance for the railroad prior to the fire. In turn, village officials say they took that to mean the railroad’s lease of space at Waterman Lions Park would be terminated.

According to court documents, the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office reported Waterman and Western Railroad, Inc. was involuntarily dissolved on July 15, 2015. Village documents show that status remained in place as of at least April 29, 2021, after the fire had already occurred.

As of Wednesday, the corporation is listed as active, the company agent information was changed and the company’s annual report was submitted Dec. 15, according to the state agency.

Village records show Robinson, before he was president, attended a June 24, 2020 building and grounds committee meeting and told village officials his insurance for the company was going to expire on Aug. 14, 2020. At the Aug. 11, 2020 board meeting, Robinson announced his retirement, according to village board meeting minutes.

“The Village accepted Pete Robinson’s announcement as the company’s intention to terminate the lease,” Bill Porter, attorney for the Village of Waterman, wrote in court documents. “On March 18, 2021, the village confirmed termination of the lease and demanded Pete Robinson remove all belongings from the park and to remove the equipment from the building by March 31, 2021.”

Robinson confirmed Wednesday the company later obtained a temporary liability insurance policy, which he said covered train riders while the train was moving. He said that coverage lapsed on Oct. 15, 2020 – days after what the couple announced would be their last-ever train ride.

He said he nor his wife Charleen have not signed anything with the village terminating the lease as of Wednesday.

Robinson previously said he was told he had 14 days to get everything out of the park or the village was going to scrap the train, and that village officials told him he had to pay for the scrapping.

He said the 2021 fire was believed to be accidental, caused by a wood-burning furnace – which he said he had lit many times before, without incident – lighting the ceiling on fire due to what he called humid and windy conditions. He said he and his workers then left to run an errand.

“Before anybody knew it, the fire was fully involved,” Robinson said Wednesday.

The Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office was called in to investigate what caused the fire in April. According to investigation report documents obtained by the Daily Chronicle through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, the state fire marshal’s office claimed the cause of the fire to be undetermined, though the fire originated inside the structure.

“Mr. Robinson stated he owns the building and the land is rented from the [Village] of Waterman,” state fire marshal officials wrote in the June 29, 2021 report. “Mr. Robinson stated he did not have insurance on the property and he valued the building and contents around $250,000.”

Village presidency at risk

The lawsuit is the Waterman Village Board making good on its promise, approved at its Dec. 14 meeting, to file a complaint against Robinson within the DeKalb County court system if he did not pay the village the requested amount by the end of December.

The plan also states that Robinson would be dismissed as village president, since he would owe a debt to the village.

According to Illinois Municipal Code, a vacancy in a municipal office happens if an official fails to pay a debt to their municipality.

“In the event that the municipal official chooses to contest the debt, a hearing shall be held within 30 days of the municipal clerk’s receipt of the written notice of contest from the municipal official,” the law states. “An appointed municipal hearing officer shall preside over the hearing, and shall hear testimony and accept evidence relevant to the existence of the debt owed by the municipal officer to the municipality.”

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 case is set to go before DeKalb County Chief Judge Bradley Waller in a case management conference scheduled for 9 a.m. March 21.

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