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posted: 8/9/2014 6:30 AM

Elgin's idea for police/fire board may be a first in Illinois

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If Elgin decides to drastically change the makeup of its fire and police board, it likely would be an unprecedented move, experts say.

The Elgin board, as is the case in most suburbs, is composed of residents, although there have been two vacancies on the five-person Elgin panel since 2010.

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The proposal is to change the board to include two residents, plus the fire chief, police chief and city's human resources director.

The city council's committee of the whole last month narrowly gave the OK in a 5-4 vote for the measure to go to the city council, which could happen as soon as Wednesday.

The police and fire chiefs should have a say in selecting new hires, city officials say.

Police Chief Jeff Swoboda was out of the office and unavailable for comment this week.

But Elgin Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said, "Having input on the people we want to hire is extremely important.

"The chief is ultimately responsible for everybody in the department, yet he has no part in the decision of who gets hired."

Fire Chief John Fahy echoed that.

"It's a bad idea that there is nobody on the board from the fire service," he said. "There is nobody with firefighting experience on the board."

The board's purpose

John Broihier, attorney for the Illinois Fire and Police Commissioners Association, said he doesn't know of any municipalities in Illinois with fire and police boards that include public safety chiefs or human resources staff.

Naperville attorney and former police officer John Kelly, whose clients include several fire and police boards, agreed.

"This is novel, as far as I'm concerned," said Kelly, who also has served for more than 20 years on the fire and police board in Lake Zurich.

The changes would defeat the purpose of the board as a means for civil oversight and ensure fire and police chiefs didn't have too much power in selecting underlings, Broihier said.

"Essentially, it's to give everyone an equal opportunity to be employed as a firefighter or police officer (...) and kind of take away the ability of one or two people to control the process," he said.

"I'm not saying this is going to be wrong. I'm saying it's certainly going to be different -- and there's reasons why they had the old way in place."

But the hiring system is much more regulated now, Wolf said.

"There's a significant amount of laws out there that are checks and balances on the power that we have," he said.

How things work

Under state law, municipalities with 5,000 residents or more must have a board of fire and police commissioners consisting of three residents not employed by the city, Broihier said.

Some towns, including Aurora and West Chicago, have civil service commissions, which are similar to boards, he said.

However, home rule communities such as Elgin can enact their own policies and procedures, Broihier said.

The Elgin board is in charge of only hiring police and firefighters, not promotions or discipline.

Police and fire candidates in Elgin take a written test, and the top performers go through a background check and interviews with the police and fire board.

Candidates who earn a minimum combined verbal and written score make the hiring list; as positions become vacant, new people get hired starting at the top of the list.

Board Chairwoman Mary Camacho said she's skeptical the police and fire chiefs would have time to take part in all board meetings and hiring interviews.

The proposed new rules would allow designees, likely deputy chiefs, to take the chiefs' places.

Wolf said that would become a priority.

"We would be there," he said.

Having different people sit on different interviews could invite lawsuits from rejected candidates, said Camacho, who's served on the board for 20 years.

Fahy pointed out Assistant Fire Chief Tim Maroder sat in on all interviews in the last hiring round.

"If we commit to being there for interviews, we are well aware it has to be the same person for every candidate," he said.

Some alternatives

It's common for boards to include fire and police chiefs from neighboring communities, Kelly said.

Also, some cities have given staff members more oversight over public safety hiring, such as Crystal Lake, whose human resources department has final say, he said.

Elgin Councilwoman Tish Powell unsuccessfully proposed having four residents, not just two, on the new board to ensure a majority of non-city staff.

Powell's idea might have some merit, Camacho said.

"I don't think (city staff) should be the controlling membership in the commission," she said. "Residents should outnumber them."

The bottom line is that the police and fire chiefs know exactly what kind of candidates are needed, Wolf said.

For example, the police department fired one officer and forced another one to resign in the last year due to performance problems, he said.

While the chiefs can turn down new hires that don't meet standards during a probationary period, that's a loss of thousands of dollars in salaries, Wolf added.

"If we interviewed them, we would ask them questions about community involvement. We also want officers that are good problem solvers," he said.

"We don't want officers who only look at quick fixes, but (look at) the underlying causes. Those are the things we put high value on."

It's hard to say whether Elgin is moving in the right direction, Kelly said.

"I would agree with the city of Elgin that input from both the fire chief and police chief is crucial when you're doing the hiring," he said.

"But in practice, in the communities I represent, the police and fire chief are always present for the testing processes, and have a great input into the selection of candidates to hire."

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