Appellate court hears arguments in Lockport fire pension lawsuit
BY JANET LUNDQUIST firstname.lastname@example.org October 22, 2012 5:22PM
Former Lockport Fire Chief Robert Cronholm
Updated: November 24, 2012 6:19AM
OTTAWA — A group of Lockport firefighters has appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit claiming the retired chief of the township fire department is double-dipping — drawing a six-figure salary as the department’s “administrator” along with a pension.
Robert Cronholm retired as chief of the Lockport Fire Protection District effective Oct. 31, 2009. He began collecting pension payments on Nov. 1, 2009.
He was re-hired by the district effective Nov. 1, 2009, to serve as its chief administrator and collect the same salary he had as chief — $120,000.
Cronholm, who still works for the district and collects the district pension, attended a hearing on the appeal Monday afternoon at the 3rd District Appellate Court in Ottawa. He declined to comment on the situation.
His lawyer argued that the firefighters’ lawsuit should have been dismissed, citing errors in how it was filed, but the firefighters’ lawyer said the errors don’t change the fact that, if the pension board actually held a hearing to determine whether Cronholm deserves the pension payments, it would have found he does not.
At the time of Cronholm’s retirement in 2009, the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund rejected his enrollment, saying he was essentially doing the same job he was doing before. The Department of Insurance agreed.
Nevertheless, the pension board continued its payments to Cronholm. In January 2010, the district restructured the department, changed Cronholm’s duties and planned to hire a new fire chief.
Once the changes were made, the Department of Insurance told the district Cronholm’s duties did not equate to re-entering active service.
In April 2010, the district’s pension board sided with the Department of Insurance and decided it would not make Cronholm pay back the pension payments he had already collected.
The IMRF, however, still believed Cronholm ineligible for a pension should remain. Fund trustees confirmed that after a July 2010 hearing on the issue at which Cronholm testified.
A group of firefighters — Todd Randich, Arthur Jacobs, Michael Lopina and John O’Connor — filed a lawsuit in Will County in May 2010 alleging Cronholm collected pension payments when he was not eligible and asking the court to rule that Cronholm must return the pension benefits, plus interest.
Cronholm and the pension board filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in July 2011. Five months later, Judge Bobbi Petrungaro agreed that the complaint had procedural errors, found the pension board had made a final decision on the matter and dismissed the lawsuit.
Cronholm’s lawyer, Melinda Kollross, argued the same position Monday: That the case should have been tossed because of errors with the filing.
The men did not include all the defendants in their initial filing, such as Cronholm or the Lockport Fire Protection District, she said, and did not file the document within a 35-day period after the pension board decision to start Cronholm’s pension payments.
“They made a procedural error in that complaint and they’re trying to make an end-run around it,” Kollross said.
She also argued the pension board made a final decision on Cronholm’s work status in April 2010.
But the firefighters’ attorney, William Widmer, said there was no final decision made on Cronholm’s status because there was no formal hearing held.
“That places the issue of whether Mr. Cronholm (re-entered) fire service in conflict with the pension law in legal limbo,” Widmer said.
The IMRF hearing and findings support their claim that Cronholm returned to active service after retiring, he said.
The appellate court will likely issue a decision on the appeal within the next two months.