Posts Tagged Tri-State FPD Trustee Jill Strenzel

Tri-State Fire Protection District in the news

Excerpts from the

A case involving a Tri-State Fire Protection District official charged with submitting a fraudulent report in 2015 may soon reveal the truth behind possibly dubious circumstances lurking within the Burr Ridge-based district.

Originally at issue was the questionable aptness of Michael Orrico’s dual relationship with the fire district as both a trustee and as an equipment vendor.

Reporting in the Edgar County Watchdogs’ (ECW) Illinois Leaks publication, principal writer Kirk Allen said last month that Orrico, who sells gear for Fire Service Inc., failed to mention his employment in a key disclosure statement for his trustee position. Fire Service Inc. is based in various locations, including Naperville.

According to Illinois state law, anyone filing a statement of economic interests who deliberately puts on record a false or incomplete statement is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, so when the 18th Judicial Circuit Court of DuPage County in Wheaton finally issued an arrest warrant for Orrico Sept. 16 this year, ECW expressed approval.

Named as a defendant in the case, Orrico was required to make a 10 percent bond deposit and appear in court for a bail bond hearing Oct. 11. Terms of the warrant forbade him from leaving the state of Illinois without the court’s permission, limiting Orrico’s whereabouts to an eight-county range.

In part, the charges read, “on or about March 16, 2015 … Michael J. Orrico committed the offense of Filing a False Statement of Economic Interest, in that the … trustee of the Tri-State Fire Protection District, willfully … failed to list on that statement … his employment with Fire Service Inc. and his title or the description of any position held with Fire Service, Inc., from which the defendant earned income.”

As it happened, Orrico, one of three elected Tri-State Fire Protection District trustees, had disagreed with his colleagues in the past about records handling. As his case unfolded, details about missing records came to light, and further fanning the flames were apparently obscure circumstances by which records were lost to begin with.

In December 2013, Tri-State reported that confidential tape recordings were missing from a safe in its Burr Ridge facility. The audio documentation regarded executive sessions of the district’s board of trustees.

“Whatever has been going on during executive session remains a mystery,” the Chicago-based Better Government Association (BGA) said in 2013. The investigative nonprofit previously had published a series of articles on the district’s Darien branch, keeping its eyes peeled on spending records and alleged conflicts of interest and other irregularities.

“According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, trustees are allowed to convene in private to discuss sensitive material such as litigation or personnel matters, provided certain rules are followed,” the BGA said. “Among the rules, they must keep a verbatim record – either video or audio – of all sessions closed to the public.”

Tri-State allegedly had stored its closed-session records at the shared residence of trustee Jill Strenzel and Fire Chief Michelle Gibson, longtime partners. According to BGA, Orrico asked to hear the recordings, but of seven meetings arranged specifically for that purpose, four or more were canceled.

In a bizarre twist, Strenzel fell outside the station on Nov. 18, 2013, breaking two tape recorders in the process and sending a staffer to buy a new one. She then claimed that someone broke into a safe containing tapes and notes at the Burr Ridge Station at 10S110 S. Madison St. on Nov. 21.

“Strenzel … started to pull papers out of the safe, ‘at which time she stopped and was worried that unlawful entry had been gained,’” according to records obtained by BGA. Police determined that nothing was missing and classified the burglary as suspicious circumstances due to lack of evidence.

Strenzel followed up at the scene with speculative questions regarding what should be done if someone had erased the tapes using a magnet. The next day, the police were recalled to the same station and were asked to move items into a new safe. Records indicate that the officers declined to physically perform the task, instead observing Strenzel doing so.

At the next regular board meeting in mid-December, Strenzel and one other trustee voted to keep closed session meeting minutes confidential, with Orrico the sole opponent.

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BGA has more to say about the Tri-State FPD

Excerpts from the Investigator’s Blog:

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.

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.

“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.

“It was as 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?

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Elections for trustee positions with the Tri-State FPD

Excerpts from the

Three candidates are running for the one open seat on the Tri-State Fire Protection District Board, but there’s not a lot of campaigning.

Julie Strenzel, a board incumbent, did not respond to messages and emails to discuss her candidacy. Strenzel has been under the microscope of the Better Government Association for moves she has made during her tenure on the board. The BGA reported last year that Strenzel is in a civil union and raising a family with former Tri-State Chief Michelle Gibson, but still voted to approve a retirement agreement that paid the former chief about $136,000 for unused sick days and vacation time.  Strenzel is also on record approving late career pension spikes for two other former chiefs, as well as an assistant chief.

Matthew Goodwin, a former U.S. Army major, said the BGA investigation is one reason he is running. “I am concerned with the way the board has been run in the past, the issues that have resulted in BGA reports,” Goodwin said. “It is not the type of scrutiny we need.” Goodwin said that stewardship, service and transparency are the pillars of his campaign.

“We don’t need personal agendas and personal priorities,” Goodwin said. “We need good stewards of taxpayer dollars; and the board need to operate in an open and transparent manner as much as possible.” He said that he is concerned about the pension-spiking that has occurred.

The third candidate, Eric Habercoss, a lieutenant with the Cicero Fire Department, agreed. “I have lived in the district 10 years and I have seen the BGA and Doings articles about the misappropriation of funds,” Habercoss said. “I have been a career fireman, 22 years. I want to make a positive impact on the community.” He noted that a practice called pension spiking, where those nearing retirement are giving higher raises their final years to augment their annual pension payment, will cost the district $1.5 million during the next 20 years.

“We need to stop the wasteful spending,” Habercoss said. “The district’s legal fees were more than $500,000 a couple of years ago. There is a lack of bidding for apparatus equipment.” He noted that the Tri-State Board recently decided that all tapes of meetings more than 18 months old will be destroyed. “I am not going to vote for destroying anything,” Habercoss said. “There needs to be accountability in the district.”

The Tri-State District serves parts of Burr Ridge, Darien, Willowbrook and unincorporated DuPage County.

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NBC Chicago aligns with BGA on Tri-State FPD decisions

NBC Chicago has an article and associated video segment questioning decisions made by the Tri-State FPD board of trustees with regards to the recent retirement of Fire Chief Michelle Gibson.

The recently-resigned fire chief of the Tri-State Fire Protection District left behind a number of questions as she vacated the office.

Michelle Gibson is in a civil union and raising a family with Jill Strenzel, a woman who is essentially one of her bosses and one of only three trustees overseeing the fire district headquartered in southwest suburban Darien and covering parts of four towns and unincorporated DuPage County.

Two weeks ago, Strenzel and her two fellow trustees unanimously approved a retirement agreement that will pay the now former chief about $136,000 at the end of the year, mostly for unused sick days and vacation.

Attorney Shawn Collins, who specializes in negotiating employment contracts and disputes, reviewed the agreement and labeled it “ridiculous.” He said he’s never heard of anyone getting “paid in 2014 for an unused sick day from 1989.” Collins concluded that the Tri-State Fire District has the appearance of a “fiefdom or a private family business somewhere where a bunch of people who know each other are deciding how to carve up family money.”

Gibson resigned following a year-long investigation by the Better Government Association and NBC 5 Investigates which uncovered a spike in spending on equipment, entertainment and legal expenses in the six years since she was elevated to chief. The trustees, including Gibson’s life partner, reviewed and approved each year’s budget.

When BGA investigator Katie Drews pushed the three trustees for answers on Gibson’s retirement agreement, the new fire chief, Jack Mancione, answered instead with emails that said in part that “the trustee feel it is fair and reasonable to the taxpayers.”

House Republican leader Jim Durkin, who represents the area, said the scenario “screams for public accountability.”

thanks to multiple sources

 previous posts are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

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BGA has more to say about the Tri-State FPD

The Better Government Association has the Tri-State Fire Protection District back in their sites with the following article:

More Smoke Coming Out Of Tri-State

Dec 30, 2013
bo_gibbons_jill_Strenzel_BGAphotoTrustees Hamilton “Bo” Gibbons and Jill Strenzel / BGA photo

Firefighters, of all people, know that where there’s smoke, there’s often fire.

And several firefighters in the western suburbs are concerned about the “smoke” coming from their very own department.

A series of Better Government Association articles on the Darien-based Tri-State Fire Protection District has already exposed wild spending habits, conflicts of interest and pension “spiking” within the agency.

Since then, a number of curious events have occurred at the district – again, raising eyebrows among the rank and file and calling into question Tri-State’s leadership.

The most recent situation centers around confidential tape recordings from closed-door meetings of Tri-State’s board of trustees – an oversight body comprised of three elected officials.

According to the Illinois Open Meetings Act, trustees are allowed to convene in private to discuss sensitive material such as litigation or personnel matters, provided certain rules are followed. Among the rules, they must keep a “verbatim record” – either video or audio – of all sessions closed to the public.

Until recently, Tri-State’s closed session tapes were stored at the private residence shared by Trustee Jill Strenzel and Fire Chief Michelle Gibson, who have been in a relationship for many years and entered in a civil union in 2012.

Michelle_GibsonFire Chief Michelle Gibson

After Trustee Michael Orrico raised concerns at a public board meeting in September about the location of the tapes and the accuracy of meeting minutes, Strenzel said the tapes were in her possession because of renovations at Tri-State and that if Orrico wanted to listen to any of them, they could arrange it.

But in reality, that hasn’t been so easy.

Seven special meetings have since been scheduled to listen to tapes, and at least four of those were ultimately canceled.

And on one especially bizarre occasion, the police intervened.

On Nov. 21, Burr Ridge police responded to a reported burglary at the Tri-State station located at 10S110 Madison St. in Burr Ridge where Strenzel told officers someone “broke into” a district safe holding tapes and other notes, according to police reports obtained by the BGA through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

According to the reports, Strenzel was at the firehouse and started to pull papers out of the safe “at which time she stopped and was worried that unlawful entry had been gained.”

After investigating, the police concluded that nothing was missing from the safe. Due to a lack of evidence, officers were unable to determine a crime had been committed and reclassified the burglary as “suspicious circumstances.”

Strenzel, who, according to the reports, is the only person who possesses a key and combination for the safe, asked a police officer “what should be done if they found that someone had erased the tapes ‘using a magnet’ at which time” the officer advised her to contact authorities, records show.

The police were called back to the station after midnight on Nov. 22 and were asked to “move items from a compromised safe to a new safe.” Officers declined to physically get involved but watched Strenzel move three envelops, five plastic bags containing audio tapes, 11 manila envelops and one recording device from one safe to another.

The reported break-in came only a few days after yet another strange episode related to district tapes. Just before a regular board meeting was about to begin on Nov. 18, Strenzel fell outside of the station and broke two empty tape recorders, according to meeting minutes. At the request of a district attorney, an employee was sent to buy another recording device “so that there could be a closed session meeting,” the documents show.

Whatever has been going on during executive session remains a mystery.

At the Dec. 17 regular board meeting, the trustees voted (Strenzel and Hamilton “Bo” Gibbons yes, Orrico no) to approve – and keep confidential – meeting minutes from several closed sessions from the past year.

In another interesting development at Tri-State, paramedics and emergency medical technicians who are employed by Public Safety Services Inc. but work at Tri-State have been organizing to form a union.

Already more than 50 percent of workers signed cards seeking union representation, according to an official with the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics. An election will be held at the district at the end of the month, and results should be announced by the New Year.

In the midst of the union drive, Gibson announced that Shelly Carbone, who oversaw the paramedics at Tri-State, “has been offered an opportunity within PSSI to be involved more at the corporate level” and would no longer be working at Tri-State as EMS coordinator, according to interviews and a Dec. 19 email obtained by the BGA.

PSSI did not return phone calls.

With all the recent commotion at the west suburban department, it seems as though the district is beginning to unravel.

Firefighters, meanwhile, are standing by, keeping a close watch on the rising smoke.

thanks Dan & Scott

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