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.

Michelle Gibson / BGA photo

Michelle Gibson, chief of the Tri-State Fire Protection District for the past six years, has retired following a yearlong Better Government Association probe that uncovered padded pensions, conflicts of interest and questionable spending habits inside the west suburban department.

Though she is no longer working at Tri-State, district taxpayers are still on the hook for her going-away package – worth more than $136,000.


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Tri-State officials could not or would not adequately answer questions about the lucrative deal, and it is not clear whether trustees followed district policies, or if suitable policies even exist.

Jill_Strenzel_BGAphoto

Jill Strenzel / BGA photo

Among those who approved the retirement agreement was Gibson's civil union partner, Jill Strenzel, who was elected in late 2003 to the three-member board that oversees the Darien-based agency.

The two live together and have been in a relationship for many years, but that hasn't stopped Strenzel from repeatedly voting on Gibson's compensation, including the payments awarded in the former chief's separation agreement.

No law prohibits Strenzel from voting on her partner's employment matters, but outside experts believe her actions present a serious conflict of interest.

"This retirement agreement raises some very important questions about whether inappropriate favoritism is being extended to Gibson," said Shawn Collins, an employment law attorney who reviewed the contract at the request of the BGA.

According to the contract, Tri-State will pay the 52-year-old Gibson $114,963.55 for unused sick, vacation and personal time, as well as a lump sum payment of $22,000.

About 87 percent of the $114,963.55, or, roughly $100,000, was for unused sick time accrued over the course of Gibson's 33-year Tri-State employment, which ended Feb. 15, according to Jack Mancione, former deputy chief of Tri-State who was recently promoted to chief.

All of her sick time was paid out at $72.58 per hour, Gibson's rate of pay at the time of retirement, Mancione said.

Since she became chief in 2008, Gibson has been entitled to full reimbursement for 12 sick days per year, according to her employment contracts. (Last spring she cashed in more than $9,000 for two years of unused sick leave.)

Are district taxpayers really paying in 2014 for unused sick days from the ‘80s and ‘90s? I think most people will be shocked if that is true. . . .

The BGA, however, found no policy that would have required Tri-State to pay Gibson in full for the unused sick leave she accumulated prior to her becoming chief, based on interviews and district records obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Furthermore, it appears former chiefs who retired from Tri-State did not receive compensation for unused sick time using the same formula that was applied for Gibson, according to department records. In fact, lump sum payments that past officials received, which the district attributed to sick time buyouts, equaled far less than if they had been reimbursed at the full rate of pay at their retirement.

"It seems to me that they are making a policy just to benefit Gibson," Collins said. "Are district taxpayers really paying in 2014 for unused sick days from the '80s and '90s? I think most people will be shocked if that is true. . . . The district has some explaining to do."

Strenzel and fellow trustees did not respond to requests for comment.

Mancione, who told the BGA via email that he was replying on behalf of the board, said trustees believe the contract is "fair and reasonable to the taxpayers." He did not answer specific follow-up questions.

Gibson's $22,000 lump sum, according to Mancione, was provided to settle a dispute over the amounts owed to Gibson, who agreed to forever waive Tri-State from any claims and lawsuits.

Gibson, who was one of the highest-paid chiefs in the area making $150,963 a year, has been at the center of several BGA reports over the last year. Among the BGA's findings:

  • Tri-State's attorney fees increased from $13,000 a year to more than $100,000 a year, according to legal bills from 2007 to 2012.
  • The agency spent taxpayer money on steak and lobster dinners, generous bonuses and new Ford Expeditions, among other questionable purchases.
  • The board awarded pay raises to former Tri-State officials just before they retired, which could cost residents an extra $1.5 million in pension payouts.

The payments in Gibson's contract will not impact her pension, which has not yet been approved.

At a Feb. 10 board meeting, Gibson told a reporter she felt no pressure to resign and that she chose to retire to be with her family. She did not return follow-up messages.

A district press release on Gibson's retirement lauded her service with Tri-State, which covers parts of Burr Ridge, Darien, Willowbrook, Willow Springs and unincorporated DuPage County, and highlighted her accomplishments, including her assistance with a higher-education program that enabled Tri-State personnel to obtain degrees, the construction of a Sept. 11 memorial and a telecommunications infrastructure upgrade that resulted in "significant savings to the taxpayers."

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