Fire Chief Resigns With Controversial Retirement Deal

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Former Tri-State Fire District chief Michelle Gibson under scrutiny for her retirement deal and spending during her six years in the position. Dick Johnson reports. (Published Monday, Mar 3, 2014)

    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."

    Efforts to reach Gibson and Strenzel were unsuccessful.

    The Better Government Association promotes reform through investigative journalism, civic engagement and advocacy. We're a watchdog, shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.