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A model for good government

Downtown Naperville

Downtown Naperville

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Updated: November 9, 2013 6:14AM

In the name of clean, open and transparent government — so notoriously in such short supply in this state — Naperville has come up with a simple hiring reform that every local government would be wise to adopt.

Under a proposal that recently had its first reading, the suburb’s city council would have to sign off before any retired city public safety officer who is collecting a pension could be hired for a different city job where he or she could start collecting credits for a second public pension — an easily abused practice called “double-dipping.”

The Naperville ordinance wouldn’t bar the city from hiring a qualified applicant who just happens to be retired, but it would ensure greater oversight over any such double-dipping to make sure a thorough job search has been conducted, the best person is being hired, and it’s not all a clubby insider’s game.

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said it’s “not an uncommon practice” among local governments to put people in new jobs that significantly boost their total pension income — good for them but bad for the taxpayer.

“Usually you get vested in a pension after 20 years — sometimes faster — and once you are vested you can’t get a higher percentage of your salary as a pension,” Simpson said. “If you go to work for another agency, and maybe work there five years, you can get 40 or 50 percent of your new salary added to your 80 percent from your earlier job.”

Insiders have long manipulated the pension system by switching public jobs in midcareer. Merging several government jobs into one pension is what allowed a former Oak Brook police chief from a prominent political family, for example, to boost his pension by $30,000 a year, which added up to a total additional pension liability of about $750,000 for taxpayers there.

Then there was the case of Robert Degnan, brother of the Daley family’s close ally Tim Degnan. In 2002, Degnan retired as the city’s $115,260-a-year fleet management commissioner to do virtually the same job for the CTA, paving the way for him to collect two simultaneous government pensions.

Government workers who have fully vested pensions have a perfect right to take a new job while collecting their pensions. But it creates a problem with public perception if they go right back to work for a related government agency. Taxpayers can’t help but suspect the system is rigged by insiders who take care of each other — and often they’d be right.

The issue came up in Naperville with the recent hiring of Police Chief Bob Marshall. Marshall had put in 27 years with the police department before retiring in 2005 and taking a job as Naperville assistant city manager, which has a separate pension system. Last year, the Naperville Police Pension Fund Board ruled he could continue to get his police pension, a decision that’s on appeal before the Illinois Department of Insurance.

Councilman Joseph McElroy, who introduced the ordinance, said Marshall is well qualified to be police chief, especially because his work as assistant city manager helps him understand the constraints of municipal budgeting.

But it’s an issue that keeps coming up, McElroy said, which is why it’s important to insist on direct authorization from elected officials.

The state already has put limits on pension double-dipping. Most former state employees can’t work for state government more than 75 days a year if they are drawing a pension, unless they want to forgo their pension payouts. The Naperville ordinance is only a small fix — it doesn’t touch what David Morrison, deputy executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, calls the bigger abuse of public employees who hold more than one job at the same time. That’s something else that should be spelled out on every local government’s agenda every time it comes up.

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