The editors who lay out the Sun-Times totally nailed it last Monday when they filled most of the front page with a color photo of a man bodysurfing in tropical Australian waters while we were getting whacked by a swirling, snarling, way-too-typical spring snowstorm.
The “SURF’S UP” headline, and the subhead—”Former police chief collects disability check and waves”— made the story by ace investigators Chris Fusco and Tim Novak irresistible, as they told us about former Chicago Ridge police chief Tim Baldermann’s legal fight with his ex-employers over the size of the disability check he’s entitled to after a back injury ended his law enforcement career with the municipality.
Our initial reaction at the Better Government Association is probably typical: Why is a guy who’s cashing disability checks for a back injury battling roiling ocean waves off the coast of Australia?
Another scam that rips off taxpayers? Maybe, but not in the most obvious way.
Turns out Baldermann really did have a bad back that required surgery, and his doctor considers body surfing a form of hydrotherapy, as long as the waves are gentle.
Baldermann claims they’re reliably calm in the shallow Australian water where he was photographed.
So let’s stipulate that bodysurfing and collecting a disability check don’t automatically qualify as a scam.
And let’s chill while the courts referee the legal fight between Baldermann and Chicago Ridge officials over the size of his disability check.
Instead, let’s consider a few other things that piqued my watchdog curiosity after I got past the delicious irony on Page One:
+Baldermann apparently wanted to stay on as Chicago Ridge police chief after his injury, which makes sense because top cops don’t usually chase suspects — that’s what beat officers do — but village officials said no.
OK, so why not keep him on the force in another administrative capacity — a training or supervisory or communications role that uses his law enforcement background?
They’re paying his disability with local tax dollars anyway, so why not let him help the community, instead of simply fighting him over the size of his disability check while he bodysurfs?
Something else made my watchdog ears twitch:
+Baldermann is the part-time mayor of a nearby suburb, and full-time superintendent of a tiny, one-building school district.
He was highlighted in the Sun-Times 2012 “Disability Pays” investigation for raking in more dough than any other disabled cop or firefighter with a second job: $274,000 a year in disability pay and two government salaries.
That suggests another Page One picture: Baldermann in front of the hospital where he had back surgery, the village hall where he’s mayor, and the school where he’s superintendent.
Under each picture is the salary, followed by the total: $274,000.
So what’s wrong with this picture? From a good government standpoint, it’s “triple dipping” — collecting three checks from local taxpayers at the same time.
That cries out for a serious conversation in Springfield about limiting individuals to one public paycheck at a time, and requiring, as a condition of disability, a good-faith effort by employees and employers to use the skills and experience of veteran workers who could be contributing to their communities without aggravating their medical problems.
That would be “better government.”
And if it ever happens, maybe the headline “SURF’S UP” can be replaced by one that reads: “SCAM’S UP!”
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.
Image courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times, originally posted on Facebook page.