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.
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.
For more on Tri-State, please see:
Not All Government Consolidations Work
This blog entry was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Katie Drews, who can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.