Why are firefighters the only Illinois public employees who are allowed to sit on village boards?

UPDATE: Fire fighter also running for village board in neighboring Glenview.

Illinois law gives public employees the right to run for public office. But if they are elected, they must  give up their government job, so that they don’t end up on a board that sets their own salaries. As it should be.

Except that the law doesn’t apply to firefighters.

This is a gigantic loophole that cries out for a reasonable explanation. In effect, Illinois allows firefighters, and only firefights, to become their own employer. Or put it another way, a firefighter’s boss—the fire commissioner—has as his boss…a firefighter.

This conflict rarely happens or often comes to public light. In 2015, Carpentersville firefighter Christopher sought election to the Carpentersville Village Board, but was defeated.

Scott Bush.

Scott Bush.

Now the potential conflict has arisen again, as Northbrook firefighter Scott Bush is seeking election to the village board against a three-person Northbrook Caucus-approved three-candidate slate of incumbent trustee Kathryn Ciesla, Plan Commission member Muriel Collison and Community Relations Commission member Jason Han. (The top three vote-getters are elected.)

In an email to a constituent, Bush doesn’t see much of a conflict. Yes, he said, under Illinois law he needs to recuse himself from any votes on his own pay and benefits. But, he continued, he is allowed  to sit in on any village board meetings regarding his fireman’s contract as long as he abstains from voting on it. Citing union officials, he said he is legally entitled to deal with village budgets, including the fire department's.

Here’s the applicable Illinois law:

(a) A member of any fire department or fire protection district may:

(1) be a candidate for elective public office and serve in that public office if elected;

(2) be appointed to any public office and serve in that public office if appointed; and

(3) as long as the member is not in uniform and not on duty, solicit votes and campaign funds and challenge voters for the public office for which the member is a candidate.

In other words, a firefighter elected to another other public office can continue serving in both jobs.

In a 2005 memo after the law was passed, the Illinois Municipal League questioned the wisdom and legality of the firefighter exemption.

In effect, a firefighter that becomes a mayor or council/board member also becomes his or her own employer. Therefore, Public Act 94-316 is in contradiction with the well-settled statutes and common law standards that are intended to prohibit incompatible office holding and conflicts of interests among local public officials.

It bumps heads, the memo said, with other laws that prohibit elected officials from holding any other municipal office. It’s worth quoting the memo at length:

An incompatibility of office may occur in a variety of combinations. However, an incompatibility between two offices clearly occurs when one person holds two positions and the duties of those positions conflict with one another. The incompatibility of office doctrine provides that “two public offices are incompatible under the common law when the written law of a state specifically prohibits the occupant of either one of the offices in question from holding the other and, also, where the duties of either office are such that the holder of the office cannot in every instance, properly and fully, faithfully perform all the duties of the other office.”5 Because of the statutory responsibilities of the corporate authorities of municipalities to oversee their respective fire departments and their employees, Public Act 94-316 violates the historical intent of prohibiting the incompatible holding of two offices at one time.

The corporate authorities, of every municipality that employs firefighters, has the statutory authority to control the conditions of the employment and discipline of its firefighters even if the municipality has a board of fire and police commissioners. For instance, the corporate authorities have the statutory authority to create and operate a fire department.6 This authority includes the power to fix and regulate salaries of firefighters.7 In addition, the corporate authorities have the statutory authority to levy taxes8 and to increase the rates of tax levies9 for

the purpose of fire protection within the municipality. Finally, the corporate authorities can regulate the relationship between itself and its employees10 because municipalities have the power to regulate the conduct of their employees for their own benefit and for the benefit of effective administration of municipalities business.11

In other words, the city council or village board has a lot more responsibilities other than setting the firefighters pay and benefits that  might pose a conflict of interest. The memo concludes:

This new law has the inexplicable reality of only creating problems where problems do not need to exist. As a result, a mountain of expensive and unnecessary litigation is bound to take place unless the General Assembly repeals this new law.

In this I make no judgment about the ability of firefighters to serve honestly and capably in elected positions. Lord knows that I am greatly indebted to firefighters for their attention and expertise in my own time of need. Further, Bush’s platform and campaign positions are reasonable and thoughtful; nothing I know would otherwise disqualify him from public office.

Rather, I write this because it is one more instance of puzzling action by the Illinois Legislature, where the influence of special interests seems to be paramount.

Find out what freelance editorial services I can provide for you.

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