Fire safety: Carpentersville election exposes loophole allowing government-union board members
Local-government employees are typically barred from serving in local elected office, given they’d be sitting on both sides of the bargaining table. But one group of public employees is exempt from this sensible safeguard: firefighters.
Carpentersville, Illinois, population 37,000, is a sleepy town 40 miles northwest of Chicago.
But it’s now serving as a testing ground for one of Illinois’ most bizarre state laws, under which a seemingly obvious conflict of interest is permitted.
Under the Local Governmental Employees Political Rights Act, all public employees have the right to run for public office in Illinois. Should they win, it is expected and often required that they give up their government job, as they could end up sitting on both sides of the bargaining table in any negotiations with public unions.
It’s for this reason that school-district employees, such as teachers, are prohibited from serving on that district’s school board in Illinois.
However, within the act lies a special provision for firefighters.
One Carpentersville firefighter, Christopher Scholl, plans to take advantage of this loophole. He’s one of six candidates seeking three open seats on the Carpentersville Village Board. Another candidate, Sara Miller, is the wife of a Carpentersville firefighter.
Under this law, firefighters – and firefighters alone – are granted the privilege of holding elected office in local governments while taking a full-time salary negotiated by the very body on which he or she serves.
This exemption applies only to local governments. Per the law, “A firefighter who is elected to the Illinois General Assembly shall, upon written application to the employer, be granted a leave of absence without compensation during his or her term of office.”
Under the Illinois Constitution, members of the Generally Assembly are barred from other public employment if the General Assembly has increased the salary for the position in question within that politician’s term. They are also prohibited from collecting a paycheck from both positions for coincident hours.
The conflict of interest in the case of Carpentersville is clear, and would create truly bizarre circumstances were Scholl – a full-time union firefighter earning over $100,000 annually in salary and benefits – or a village firefighter’s spouse, such as Miller, elected to the village board.
For example, in his role as a village board member, Scholl would in effect be serving as his boss’s boss’s boss. The board directs Carpentersville Village Manager Mark Rooney, who in turn manages Director of Public Safety Al Popp, who in turn directs Deputy Fire Chief John Skillman. Skillman is in charge of firefighters like Scholl.
As a board member, Scholl would be apprised of disciplinary matters and other personnel discussions within the fire department.
In the union bargaining process, Scholl would be in a privileged negotiating position. While he has pledged not vote on matters of collective bargaining for firefighters if elected, he’s gone on record expressing the desire to cut administrative positions and use that money to hire more firefighters.
Moral concerns aside, a direct beneficiary of government funds being intimately involved the allocation of those funds could have severe budgetary consequences, especially in Carpentersville.
More than 20 percent, or $5.8 million, of the village’s general fund spending for fiscal year 2015 is directed toward fire and emergency services. More than 30 full-time firefighters are covered under the union contract with the village, which is up for renegotiation in May 2016.
Permitting a public-union employee to serve on a body that negotiates contracts with that union is a clear perversion of government power. Illinois state lawmakers should act to eliminate the loophole that makes it possible.
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