BELLEVILLE – While St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson relies on a contract for Cahokia police managers to justify a pension equal to his last salary as police chief in 2011, the village currently challenges the document’s validity in court.
The village calls the document a “perceived agreement” in defense of a suit for back wages from its current chief, two former chiefs, and five others.
According to the 2015 lawsuit pending in St. Clair County chancery court, the village claims it’s invalid because the state labor relations board doesn’t recognize the managers as a bargaining unit.
The village claims former mayor Frank Bergman improperly added terms to the document after voters ousted him in 2011.
Watson retired after Bergman lost.
In Watson’s last 35 days, his pay was raised 33 percent so his initial pension would match his final salary of $95,163.60.
Police pension funds in Illinois calculate benefits on the last day’s salary, rather than on averages over years as in most public pension funds.
This year he’ll receive $117,502.04 in police pension, on top of his $98,776 in salary as sheriff. In total, he receives $216,278 in annual compensation.
Watson defended his pension last month, saying it was in a contract that applied to all management personnel.
He wrote in an affidavit for the current suit that the village recognized police management personnel as a bargaining unit back to at least 1989. He wrote that the unit consisted of an information technology director, lieutenants, captain, chief, chief administrative assistant and executive assistant.
He wrote that the village recognized the chief as the unit’s representative.
That practice ended under the next mayor, Gary Cornwell, but not right away.
He stopped honoring it in 2014.
Chief James Jones sued the village in 2015, along with current chief David Landmann, former chief Lawrence Purcell, and managers Gary Brewer, Dennis Plew, Tanya Mobbs, Richard Seats and Nancy Koehler.
Their lawyer, Brian Manion, deposed Cornwell in 2016.
Manion asked Cornwell how he became aware of the management agreement.
Cornwell said ratification of a contract with patrolmen and sergeants in the Fraternal Order of Police involved back pay.
“I had a dollar amount attached to the back pay based on the patrol officers and sergeants that are covered under this FOP contract,” Cornwell said.
“They were to receive 50 percent of their back pay at one time and then sometime a week or two later, maybe a month later, to receive the rest of it.
“The back pay amount for the first 50 percent was almost double what I had anticipated.”
He said he called Jones and Jones described the police management contract.
Manion asked Cornwell if he had no knowledge of its existence.
“I had no idea that police department employees that were not covered under the FOP contract, that they had any piece of paper at all that they perceived to be a contract or an agreement,” Cornwell said.
Manion asked him what he understood about management wages and benefits prior to that.
“The entire police department and the way they that they are all paid was very confusing to me,” Cornwell said.
“They receive compensation and wage increases and other things in so many different ways that literally every employee is making a different hourly rate.
“I felt that it wasn’t fair for an outgoing administration, ten days after I had won an election and just a few days before I was to take office, to authorize any kind of agreement to try to force a management situation on my administration.
“I was wondering, how can the chief be included in something like that?
“I had some serious questions that were over my head.”
He said the village retained lawyer Tom Hennessy, who met with him, Jones, Purcell, Landmann and Plew.
“At that time they had already received 50 percent of the back pay,” Cornwell said.
“I told them that I wasn’t going to take anything back.
“We left that alone but we did not give them the other 50 percent when the rest of the police officers covered by the FOP contract received theirs.”
Cornwell said Hennessy made contact with the state labor relations board and was told they didn’t have Cahokia police management as a certified bargaining group.
He said he informed the managers they were vulnerable and he requested that they sit down and come up with something fair to them and the village.
“They did not want to do that,” Cornwell said.
“They wanted the deal that was presented to them from the previous administration.”
Also in 2016, village counsel Mark Scoggins deposed Jones.
Scoggins said, “What is your understanding that an agreement can be made between a group of management personnel and the city with only the city signing it?”
Jones said, “Because I was advised about this and I agreed to it with the current chief, at that time Watson.”
Scoggins said, “You think it could be valid because of some conversation you had?”
Jones said, “It had my approval when he brought it to my attention.”
Scoggins asked how much wages he was owed.
Jones said, “Off this agreement here, it was approximately almost 16 to 17 thousand, sir.”
Scoggins said, “Up to today?”
Jones said, “Up to today, I would say it’s probably 26 thousand.”
Scoggins asked the same question when he deposed Purcell.
Purcell said, “I don’t want to be held to a number and I don’t event want to guess.”
Last November, Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf referred the matter to mediation with retired circuit judge Lloyd Cueto.
Rudolf held a status conference on May 1, and set the next one July 3.
The docket shows no entry on July 3, and none since.