New Guard At Tri-State – But Controversy Remains

New board leadership recently took the helm at the embattled Tri-State Fire Protection District – but not without problems.

New board leadership recently took the helm at the embattled Tri-State Fire Protection District – but not without problems.

A newly elected trustee who ran on a campaign of reform is raising concerns about transparency and accountability within the west suburban district, one of the largest agencies of its kind in the state.

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Bo Gibbons and Jill Strenzel

Back in April’s election, Eric Habercoss unseated longtime Tri-State trustee Jill Strenzel, who for years had been voting on the salary and benefits of her civil union partner, former Tri-State Fire Chief Michelle Gibson. (Gibson exited the district last year, taking with her a retirement package worth more than $136,000 – a deal that was also approved by Strenzel.)

Shortly after the election, another longtime trustee, Hamilton "Bo" Gibbons, resigned, saying it was "time for a change."

To replace him, the board called for a special meeting on May 13 and appointed Bob Jewell, who was president of Tri-State’s board of commissioners, which handles the hiring and testing of rank-and-file employees. (That’s as opposed to the Tri-State board of trustees, which oversees district finances.)

The move irked Habercoss, who felt the board rushed the process to make a decision before he was to take office on May 18.

Habercoss
Eric Habercoss
(via Facebook)

"I’m being sworn in Monday. This appointment could have been made then," Habercoss said during the public comment portion of the special meeting. "However, the process was forced through to keep me from participating."

Jewell and Strenzel could not be immediately reached while Trustee Mike Orrico declined to publicly comment.

Later, on May 18, at his first official meeting as a trustee, Habercoss outlined a number of his additional concerns with the district, including the transparency surrounding a recent ambulance purchase and access to public records.

Tri-State Fire Chief Jack Mancione said the district has never been "as transparent as it is now" and that he’s looking forward to moving on from the district’s past controversies.

But Habercoss said he’s seeing a lot of the same problems that were apparent under the old regime.

In one recent, and somewhat familiar, incident, the police became involved – again – in a matter having to do with Tri-State’s closed-session meeting tapes.

It started when Strenzel, prior to leaving office, hadn’t turned in her key to the district safe that contains tapes and other records.

Then, on May 20, Habercoss contacted the police after he learned the safe had been opened while Strenzel and Mancione took an inventory of what was inside, according to a police report.

"My concern is that two civilians without any trustee present had access to private and confidential closed-session tapes, which may very well pertain to them," Habercoss said.

Meetings can be closed off to the public when trustees discuss certain sensitive information such as litigation and personnel matters, but those sessions are recorded.

Mancione said there had been no wrongdoing.

jack mancione
 Chief Jack Mancione
(via district website)

"It was a simple as that. We opened the door, I confirmed her key worked and confirmed there was something in there," he said.

According to the police report, the "case requires no police action and the report is for documentation purposes only." The case has since been closed.

As we reported previously, Burr Ridge police responded to a reported burglary in 2013 at Tri-State when Strenzel said someone "broke into" a district safe containing tapes and then asked what should be done if the recordings had been erased "using a magnet."

Police were called back again that night to "move items from a compromised safe to a new safe," records show. You can read more about that incident here.

For other past stories on Tri-State, which provides taxpayer-financed firefighting and emergency medical services to parts of Burr Ridge, Darien, Willowbrook, Willow Springs and unincorporated DuPage County, please see:

Under Fire

Suburban fire chief resigns amid mounting questions about her agency’s finances and leadership. But she’s not leaving empty-handed – she collects a lucrative exit package.

Hey Rig Spender

Suburban fire department claims tight finances – but spends freely on pricey fire trucks, meals and various perks.

Are Taxpayers Getting Burned?

Top officials at suburban fire department get hefty pay raises just as they retire – creating a pension windfall that could cost local residents an extra $1.5 million.

A Burning Conflict

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

Not All Government Consolidations Work

Should the district be expanding and taking on more responsibilities when its own financial house isn’t in order?

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