A former suburban fire chief will be allowed to draw his
firefighter’s pension while still working for the same fire protection district
he had led, after a state appeals court said, because the former chief doesn’t
respond to fire calls, the fire district’s pension board had incorrectly attempted
to deny him his pension when the board determined the former chief had
reentered service as a firefighter after the district hired him back on in the
role of “chief administrator.”
On June 14, a three-justice panel of the Illinois Third
District Appellate Court, by a 2-1 decision, found state law meant Robert
Cronholm, former chief of the Lockport Township Fire Protection District in
southwest suburban Will County, was entitled to, simultaneously, collect his
pension as a retired firefighter and a salary as an administrative
professional, from the same public taxing body, despite the opinion of the
Illinois Department of Insurance that this was improper.
The appellate opinion was authored by Justice Mary K. O’Brien,
with Justice Vicki Wright concurring.
Justice Daniel L. Schmidt dissented.
“Since Cronholm could no longer participate in the work of
controlling and extinguishing fires at the location of any such fires, he no
longer qualified as a firefighter for purposes of the Pension Code and as such,
the DOI’s interpretation was manifestly contrary to the statute,” the majority
The decision comes in a years-long legal conflagration
dating back to October 2009, when Cronholm informed the Lockport fire district
of his intent to retire and begin drawing retirement benefits. Within days, the
district then, purportedly at the guidance of the district’s attorney, hired
Cronholm back on in the role of “chief administrator,” under a three-year
contract beginning Nov. 1, 2009.
The district’s pension board, however, asked the state’s DOI
to weigh in on the retirement and rehire of Cronholm, asking whether hiring the
purportedly retired fire chief on as a chief administrator, while allowing him
to draw his pension, violated the state’s pension laws, which forbid allowing
those who have reentered service as a firefighter from drawing a pension while
working for a fire department.
The DOI determined it was a violation, prompting the
district to again reclassify Cronholm’s position to “administrator,” and promote
Cronholm’s former assistant fire chief to replace him as chief in March 2010,
and earning a stamp of approval from the DOI.
In May 2010, some Lockport firefighters sued the pension
board over this finding, saying they believed Cronholm should not be allowed to
draw a pension while working as chief administrator.
The pension board later concluded Cronholm should be made to
repay $17,693 he had been paid under his pension between the time he has named
chief administrator and the assistant chief was promoted.
Cronholm then sued, and a Will County judge said the pension
board had erred, ordering Cronholm’s pension to be restored.
On appeal, the majority of the Third District panel backed
the finding of Judge John C. Anderson, particularly noting the law governing
firefighters’ pensions was specifically changed by state lawmakers to classify
firefighters as “those whose duty is to participate in the work of controlling
and extinguishing fires at the location of any such fires.”
They said the “plain language” of the law meant the Lockport
district’s pension board had made a mistake in determining “his position as
chief administrator was essentially the same job as the fire chief,” and thus he
“had reentered active service from the day after his retirement … until March
18, 2010, when a new fire chief was hired.”
The justices said the lawmakers’ debate concerning the
change in the law illustrates their point.
“The transcripts from the debate in the legislature make it
clear that the intent of the legislation was to limit participation in the
pension system to only firefighters, not to the myriad of other personnel who, although
integral to the success of the fire department, are not firefighters,” the
In his dissent, however, Schmidt said his colleagues in the
majority had misread the case, particularly noting repeatedly that Cronholm “did
the same job as chief administrator that he did as fire chief.”
“Chief administrator was an unsworn position but identical
to that of fire chief, save the removal of on-site fire suppression from his
list of duties,” Schmidt wrote. “Cronholm continued to carry his fire chief’s
badge, occupy the same office he did as fire chief, and prepare and present
monthly fire chief reports while serving as the District’s chief administrator.”
Schmidt noted Cronholm presented no evidence that he had
ever actually fought fires while he served as chief.
“Municipalities are looking for ways to save money,” Schmidt
wrote. “By striking one duty, which the former chief probably never performed
while chief (he had the burden of proof and did not offer any evidence of
this), the municipality kept its own chief at a reduced salary while
transferring the obligation to pay some of Cronholm’s ‘salary’ to the pension
“The end-around violates the spirit of the Act and will
undoubtedly, if allowed, lead to further abuses of firefighters’ pension funds.”