A Burning Conflict

Fire district trustee votes on fire chief’s pay, benefits. Only problem: they live together.

Michelle Gibson was promoted to chief of the Tri-State Fire Protection District in 2007, and since then she’s seen her salary grow by more than $30,000 – to around $140,000 a year.


Turns out one of the officials responsible for Gibson’s promotion and generous pay hikes is her long-time life partner, Jill Strenzel, a member of the three-person board elected to govern the Darien-based agency, the Better Government Association has learned.
 

In 2007, Strenzel voted on Gibson’s promotion from deputy chief to chief, and since then Strenzel has voted on several other agreements that dictate Gibson’s salary and benefits, according to interviews, and fire district records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.


Among Gibson’s perks: use of a 2012 Ford Expedition that she’s allowed to use for "personal and business" reasons.


Hamilton Gibbons, president of the Tri-State board of trustees, said via email that the relationship between Strenzel and Gibson does not constitute a real conflict because same-sex relationships are not recognized as marriages in Illinois.


According to Gibson’s most recent contract, which was approved in April 2012 by all board members, including Strenzel, the chief stands to make about $138,000 in 2013 and about $143,000 in 2014. She was making $104,000 as deputy chief, and that jumped to $115,000 following her 2007 promotion, which took effect in 2008, records show.
 

The fire district provides taxpayer-funded fire fighting and paramedic services to parts of Darien, Willowbrook and Burr Ridge, and to unincorporated areas of Hinsdale and Clarendon Hills, among other locations.
 

A BGA survey of 10 other fire chiefs in the west suburbs near Tri-State’s turf found base salaries between $110,000 and $153,000, with average pay around $129,000 a year.

Though not illegal, Strenzel’s participation in such votes represents a clear conflict of interest, according to experts consulted by the BGA. After all, Gibson and Strenzel have been a couple since at least 2003; they are in a committed relationship and living together, according to records and interviews.
 

Typically, board members for government agencies abstain from decisions that affect friends, relatives and associates.

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"It’s impossible to be objective, and certainly it wouldn’t appear to be objective," said Ann Buchholtz, professor of leadership and ethics at Rutgers University, when briefed by the BGA on the Tri-State situation. "The best thing is to simply sit out the decision where there is a question and let the rest of the group decide."
 

Willowbrook Mayor Robert Napoli, who also learned of Strenzel’s voting record from the BGA, said, "The person may be very well qualified but that’s not the point. That’s like me taking care of a relative of mine and making sure not only that they are employed but getting raises and promotions. Does that sound right? To me, that’s improper."
 

Robert Sodikoff, acting village president of Burr Ridge, agreed. Darien Mayor Kathleen Weaver noted Tri-State is its own taxing body and declined to comment further.


Strenzel and Gibson did not respond to requests for comment.
 

Hamilton Gibbons, president of the Tri-State board of trustees, said via email that the relationship between Strenzel and Gibson does not constitute a real conflict because same-sex relationships are not recognized as marriages in Illinois.
 

He said Gibson "has meritoriously risen through the ranks," and Gibson’s predecessor recommended Gibson, who had been the district’s deputy chief since 2004, as his successor. Gibbons also said the couple’s relationship has been public for many years and that Strenzel was re-elected even after Gibson became chief.


Tri-State, which has four stations, serves roughly 42,000 residents, according to the district. Fire protection districts provide the same functions as traditional fire departments, but often stretch across municipal boundaries and aren’t necessarily governed by a municipal government, but their own boards.


This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews. She can be reached at kdrews@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9027.