Kadner: Sauk Village eliminates police chief’s job
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org September 27, 2012 12:06AM
Sauk Village Mayor Lewis Towers
Updated: October 29, 2012 6:31AM
Sauk Village trustees voted Tuesday night to abolish the position of police chief as of Nov. 1.
The mayor says the meeting wasn’t legal because he never called it to order.
The police chief says he may file a lawsuit.
And the fire chief may be appointed to run both the police and fire departments. He said he’s willing “to do whatever I can to help the village out,” but the village attorney has to be consulted first.
But the village is in such political disarray that it has at least two sets of attorneys.
Michael McGrath, of Odelson and Sterk in Evergreen Park, was hired by the mayor to be the village attorney but said he was fired when “we offered advice he didn’t like.”
Mayor Lewis Towers said another attorney represented him at Tuesday night’s village board meeting, but that lawyer is not the one who will represent the village on a permanent basis. Towers is going to hire another guy.
The village board insists that McGrath remain the village attorney, and he appeared at Tuesday night’s special session.
At least four of the five village trustees contend that Sauk Village can’t afford a police chief.
When Robert Fox Jr. was appointed police chief by Towers in November, the trustees changed the locks to keep Fox out of his office. A Cook County judge in February ruled that Towers had the right under law to appoint the chief.
The village board’s decision to eliminate the position is apparently an attempt to get around the judge’s ruling. If there is no position, the mayor can’t have the authority to appoint someone, under the prevailing theory.
Fox told me he originally agreed to a salary of $90,000 a year, and the board eventually offered him $75,000. His salary remains in dispute, and “a judge is supposed to make a ruling on that,” he said.
“I can tell you that the police department was paying almost $400,000 (per year) in overtime when I got here, and that’s going to be down to about $160,000 this year. So I’ve saved this village at least $240,000, and that’s more than enough to justify my salary,” Fox said.
McGrath said Sauk Village had a $15 budget surplus at the end of last year, “enough to buy about two Happy Meals,” and is projecting a $1.2 million deficit at the end of this year.
Towers contends that part of that deficit is being created by McGrath’s law firm, which the mayor claims has billed the village $250,000.
A few months ago, Sauk Village ran into a major crisis when state environmental regulators discovered that its wells were contaminated. The village was forced to distribute bottled water to residents free of charge and install a system to reduce a contaminant in its water supply.
On top of all of that, one longtime village official told me, “Our village board meetings are just chaos. You can’t hear what’s going on because the mayor’s constantly banging his gavel and both sides are shouting. It’s frightening.”
The person suggested that I watch some of the village board meetings that have been posted on YouTube by a local resident, and I did.
During one session, a trustee rose from his chair, demanded that the police chief be called to remove the village attorney (McGrath) and walked around a conference table to within a few feet of McGrath in what appeared to be an attempt to physically intimidate him.
As other trustees shouted, the mayor banged his gavel about 100 times in less than five minutes, which sparked catcalls from residents who denounced the elected officials as a public embarrassment.
John Kennedy, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, said he is unaware of any police department in the state that operates without a chief.
“Channahon recently appointed the police chief as a public safety officer over both the police and fire departments, but it also named a new police chief,” Kennedy said.
He said he was unaware of any law requiring that a police department have a chief.
Tim McCarthy, Orland Park’s police chief, said there are different sets of laws and regulations governing police and fire departments and that a person who hasn’t been properly trained could make a mistake that would prove costly to a town and its residents.
“For example, every citizen complaint about a police officer must be reviewed and investigated, and if that isn’t done quickly and correctly, a community could be exposed to liability issues that would be quite expensive,” McCarthy said. “You don’t hear nearly as many lawsuits being filed against fire departments as you do police departments. It’s just the nature of the job.”
Sauk Village Fire Chief Al Stoffregen told me that while he has no police experience, he told village trustees who approached him that he would try to administer both departments if they could get the police department’s support for that. He didn’t sound enthusiastic about the idea when I spoke to him.
Fox, 43, a former Dolton police chief and former chief investigator for the Cook County medical examiner’s office, told me Sauk Village has 25 full-time police officers (although five are on work-related disability).
Sauk Village certainly has financial problems. Political differences have made compromise nearly impossible.
Running up more legal bills is only going to increase the budget deficit, and eliminating the position of police chief will jeopardize public safety.
I don’t see how anyone there can argue that what they’re doing is in the best interests of the people.