Politically connected cop paid to attend Island Lake meetings

A politically connected, part-time Island Lake police officer is being paid to attend village board meetings twice a month, prompting a dispute about the expense among officials.

Officer Wayne Schnell's presence at the Thursday-night sessions has cost the town more than $400 between June 2013 and this past February, according to a Daily Herald analysis of his timesheets and meeting records.

Schnell dresses in civilian clothes and typically sits at a staff table next to Police Chief Don Bero at meetings. Mayor Charles Amrich said Schnell attends the sessions at his request.

Schnell ran Amrich's successful political campaign in spring 2013. He had served as a part-time Island Lake cop from 2006 to 2010 and was rehired as the town's code-enforcement officer in June, after Amrich and his slate won election.

His paid meeting attendance has triggered criticism from Trustee Shannon Fox, who often spars with members of Amrich's majority on the board. Bero already represents the department at meetings, she said, so there's no reason to pay Schnell to be there for every session.

“I believe this practice should stop immediately,” Fox said in a recent email to village Treasurer Ed McGinty she shared with the Daily Herald. “It is wasteful.”

Amrich insisted Schnell is at meetings in case people get rowdy. That's happened occasionally through the years.

“I'd rather err on the side of caution here,” Amrich said.

It's normal for a town's police chief to attend board sessions as a department representative, said Winthrop Harbor Police Chief Joel Brumlik, president of the Lake County Chiefs of Police Association. It's unusual, however, for a second cop to attend so frequently.

“Customarily, you don't see more than one department head or a representative of a department at meetings,” Brumlik said.

Schnell defended his presence at meetings. He said he often stays after his shift ends and ensures everyone gets out of village hall safely after meetings end.

“I am a fully trained police officer attending meetings during my scheduled time,” Schnell said in an email. “My presence is beneficial and not wasteful.”

Started in June

The Daily Herald reviewed copies of Schnell's handwritten timesheets and board meeting minutes through February under the Freedom of Information Act.

Schnell, 62, of unincorporated McHenry County, had worked 31 years as a Chicago cop before joining Island Lake's police force.

He resigned from the department in October 2010 after an internal investigation into his behavior, village documents indicate. A follow-up investigation ordered by Bero last year cleared Schnell.

Before rejoining the department, Schnell ran the campaign for Amrich's For the People slate, which also included trustee candidates Tony Sciarrone, Keith Johns and Mark Beeson, and clerk candidate Teresa Ponio.

All five won overwhelmingly.

Schnell was reinstated June 13, 2013, and he first attended a village board meeting during a work shift two weeks later.

Between then and Feb. 27, Schnell was paid for attending 14 board meetings, records indicate. He attended a 15th meeting in October while on vacation and was not paid for it, according to Ponio.

Island Lake's semimonthly board meetings start at 7:30 p.m., and records show Schnell typically stayed on the clock until at least 9 p.m. during the time frame the Daily Herald reviewed.

His shift ended before 9 p.m. on meeting nights three times, records indicate. He was paid until 9:30 p.m. or later four times for meetings he attended, but that stopped last fall.

“In August 2013, it was agreed that I will only take pay until 9 p.m., (and) my attendance after that is off the clock,” Schnell explained. “I stay until the doors are locked and people are safely on their way. Many times it is 10 to 11 p.m.”

In all, Schnell was paid for nearly 23 hours while attending board meetings during the period reviewed, records indicate.

Schnell earned $18 per hour when he was hired in June, but his pay increased to $20 per hour starting in September 2013. On average, he was paid about $29 to attend each meeting.

Why is Schnell there?

Amrich said extra officers have attended board meetings for several years to keep the peace. Audience members and trustees occasionally have become unruly during discussions.

In the past, the officers at meetings were full-time, uniformed employees. Because Schnell is paid less as a part-time cop, the village is saving a bit of money by having him fill the role, Amrich said.

“Full-time officers make a heck of a lot more money than $20 an hour,” Amrich said.

His explanation doesn't sit well with Fox.

“In past administrations, either the chief attended or another officer in his stead, if he could not make it,” said Fox, who joined the board in 2011. “We only had additional officers (present) if the meeting was to draw a very large crowd or, possibly, very heated arguments, for the safety of the public.”

Fox believes Bero or Sciarrone, who leads the town's police committee and is a former local cop, should be able to represent the department's interests at meetings.

Trustee Thea Morris, a Fox ally, agreed.

“I am very disappointed that he (Schnell) is on the clock while attending these meetings,” Morris said. “Unless there's an urgent matter at hand (for) which his presence is needed, it seems irresponsible to waste the village's money in this way.”

But as is often the case at village hall, Fox and Morris face opposition on the issue.

Beeson said he likes the added security Schnell provides at meetings. And if needed, Schnell can sub for Bero as a police department representative if the chief is absent, Beeson said.

Schnell also has answered questions from trustees and the public about code-related issues during meetings, Beeson said.

“He serves more than one purpose,” Beeson said.

Bero likes having Schnell by his side, too.

“If something happens, I'm going to need help,” Bero said. “I'm not a young man anymore.”

Although the department has other part-time officers, Bero acknowledged Schnell is the only one who regularly attends meetings.

“That's his regular work day,” Bero said.

Schnell's attendance at meetings doesn't seem necessary to the chiefs association's Brumlik.

“I would never bring in staff for a meeting and drain my budget,” he said. “I wouldn't bring someone else in unless there's a specific reason.”

If there's a sudden need for added security, Brumlik said, officials can call extra officers who already are on call to village hall.

But Brumlik also acknowledged it's up to each chief to manage the departmental budget.

“I guess it's their call,” he said.

Beeson said he'd rather have Schnell at meetings than to pull a full-time officer off the street for the same assignment.

“For $30 a meeting, I don't care if we're doing too much,” he said. “It's money well spent.”

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