HEYWORTH — Former Heyworth Police Chief Chris Lane is entitled to reinstatement to his post and back pay, according to a judge's ruling that village officials improperly terminated Lane in February 2016.
In a lawsuit filed shortly after he was fired, Lane argued that Mayor Todd Zalucha violated state law by failing to provide trustees before a Feb. 23 meeting the reasons for his decision to remove Lane on Feb. 16.
Lane later was given the specific reasons and the Village Board voted again on March 3 to terminate him from the post he had held for nine years.
The claims in the lawsuit related to the process used by the Village Board to remove Lane and did not address allegations outlined in a memo from Zalucha. In that memo, Zalucha said Lane's termination was "due to his continual lack of honesty and his performance well below what is expected for being the chief of police for the village of Heyworth."
Lane's lawyer Richard Blass acknowledged Wednesday that the lawsuit focused on the process, but he added, "We categorically deny he engaged in any misconduct whatsoever."
The ruling by Judge Rebecca Foley reinstates Lane but his return to the post would require appointment by the Village Board.
Lane, who now works as police chief of McLean, was unclear as to what impact the ruling could have on his employment. He said details of a settlement, including his back pay and benefits, are still being working out with the village.
A Nov. 7 hearing is set to review status of those negotiations.
"I'm very happy with the court's decision. I'm happy to have my name cleared," said Lane.
In a statement released Wednesday, the village said "notably, there was no argument or finding that the Village did not have ample grounds to remove Mr. Lane."
The ruling dealt with "a technical issue" based on the mayor's verbal rather than written notice to Lane as to why he was being fired, said the statement.
The village statement does not mention reinstatement but notes that it has moved forward with a replacement for Lane, Michael Geriets, who was hired in May, and that Lane has a new job.
According to court records, Lane offered at one point during closed-door discussions with the Village Board in March to return to work as a patrol officer if the board would rescind his termination. Telling trustees that police work was his lifelong goal, Lane said he defied his detractors by becoming an officer and police chief, according to court records.
When a former mayor gave Lane the chance to serve as chief, he "took it head on ... without even having any training to do it. I had to go to the other chiefs and take classes to figure out how to do this stuff," Lane told Village Board members in March, according to court records.
The mayor provided trustees with more than a dozen alleged violations of village policies and state law involving the chief, including filing false information on insurance forms and misuse of official police email.
Court records show village Administrator Geoff Dodds, who also serves as Heyworth's attorney, alleged that Lane lied to a Pantagraph reporter. Lane was asked whether he was aware of a pending investigation involving former part-time officer Sean O'Grady related to O'Grady's work with the McLean County Sheriff's Department.
Court records show Dodds said O'Grady was asked about the investigation during his employment interview with Lane. Lane lied to the reporter because "he wanted to diffuse the situation," according to Dodds.
Supporters unhappy with Lane's dismissal packed the Village Hall during several meetings where his firing was discussed. The mayor provided few specifics to residents as to why Lane was terminated.