The Town of Cicero had long earned its bad-boy -- or girl -- image of corrupt government.
Its previous town president, Betty Loren Maltese, went to federal prison for corruption, involving abuse of her office that allegedly netted her millions and a villa in Las Vegas.
But during the reign of incumbent Town President Larry Dominick -- whether media critics, who cling to a reliable punching-bag storyline, like it or not -- the notorious Cook County suburb has shed much the inefficient bureaucratic bloat that at times made the town ungovernable and ripe for corruption. The town under Dominick has sought to transform itself into a model of modern local government in spite of its media caricature.
Good government types need to look no further than to the unglamorous, but vital cog of Cicero's government machinery, a cog vital to all suburbs -- its legal department.
When Dominick assumed the town president's post in February 2005, Cicero was submerged in an ocean of litigation, targeted by its own employees or by residents allegedly abused by police, litigation of unresolved lawsuits that stretched back four years. For the suits that the Town's law department managed to settle -- or lose -- the costs were bleeding Town's treasury.
In 2005, Cicero faced 60 pending state and federal lawsuits stemming from civil rights abuse to sexual harassment. You name it. Cicero got sued for it. In fact, Town was hit with nine new civil rights abuse suits in 2004, the last full year of the previous administration.
Dominick cleaned house at the Town's law department and farmed out the legal work in bulk to the private sector in order secure a bargain rate of $165 per hour instead of a premium, downtown rate of $350.
By 2015, Dominick and his private sector town attorney, Michael Del Galdo of the Berwyn-based Del Galdo Law Group, had cleaned out the backlog of lingering litigation of 60 suits and is handling just 12 state or federal suits and had slashed the town's legal bills.
Between 2002 and 2004, Cicero, which in 2010 and 2012 was named among the top 20 Safest Cities in America by House Hunt Online, spent, on average, $3.6 million per year on legal expenses. Between 2008 and 2014, using Del Galdo's firm, Cicero has spent, on average, just $1.9 million per year or an annual decrease of 87 percent. Cicero estimates that is has saved $13.5 million on legal costs over the last seven years.
Additionally, by deploying a lawsuit prevention strategy, Cicero reduced new civil rights lawsuits from nine annually in 2004 to just two in 2014. Del Galdo credits workforce training of the police department on permissible activities under federal civil rights law and training other town agencies on state and federal law on other subjects, such as sexual harassment.
"Lawsuits can cripple a city's finances," said Dominick. "Before I came to office in 2005, unresolved and generously-settled lawsuits were threatening to undermine the Town's long-term financial future, and I resolved to clean up the mess and toss out the government lawyers who created the problem."
Besides fending off lawsuits, Dominick has used Del Galdo to negotiate some of the Town's biggest economic development deals, such as locating a new Walmart within Cicero's municipal borders without the usual tax give incentives upon which communities typically rely to lure new business investment. Cicero gave Walmart no property tax breaks or giveaways. None. The national retailer pays full freight, which generated property taxes of $972,251 in 2014 and annually creates sales taxes of $2 million for the town's coffers.
Dominick also had Del Galdo negotiate a similar deal with Wirtz Beverage Group, winning the relocation of the Wirtz Beverage international headquarters and its warehousing facility in Cicero, a 650,000-square-foot operation that yielded property taxes of $729,086 in 2013 to the town.
"I credit Mike and his team of lawyers with negotiating damn good deals on behalf of Cicero and its taxpayers," Dominick said.
Cicero may be unable to shake its media caricature anytime soon, but its taxpayers, who reelected Dominick in 2013 with more than 60 percent of the vote, are crying all the way to the bank.