The Illinois Supreme Court issued a “pension” ruling last week in a Chicago case that provides approval for pension reform that was first raised in Oak Lawn by Trustee Alex Olejniczak and quickly dismissed by Village Manager Larry Deetjen as not being permissible under Illinois law. While the actual case didn’t include either Olejniczak or Deetjen, the subject of their pension reform discussion earlier this month was touched upon by the Supreme Court.
Olejniczak said that the pension increases enjoyed by union workers in the village are also received by Deetjen and other non-union employees. He asked Deetjen if it would be possible to change that for the non-union employees in leadership moving forward because Oak Lawn is home rule. Deetjen dismissed the idea of him or other managers voluntarily surrendering pension sweeteners, while claiming he and other management employees supported pension reform at the State level.
The debate didn’t end with Deetjen pushing the responsibility to the Illinois General Assembly because Olejniczak continued trying to convince Deetjen to voluntarily surrender benefits. Olejniczak said he didn’t believe the state could tell Deetjen or other non-union employees that they have to take a greater benefit than they believe they should be getting. Olejniczak’s point at the time was that employees, such as Deetjen, could enter into agreements individually with the village.
Deetjen then amazingly claimed that the state does make employees like him take a greater benefit. “That’s what the law says”, he stated. Actually, the law has not been interpreted by any court as Deetjen claims. In fact, the Village of Oak Lawn’s Board of Trustees voted, through its home rule powers cited by Olejniczak, to eliminate future pension benefits for Village Trustees.
Last week, legal observers suggested that the law was made much clearer in a Supreme Court decision, Jones v. Municipal Employees Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, which ruled against a Chicago pension reform measure that wasn’t individually agreed to by the employees although some unions had agreed. As far as Olejniczak’s idea regarding an agreement between Deetjen and the Village of Oak Lawn, the court did acknowledge that “nothing prohibits an employee from knowingly and voluntarily agreeing to modify pension benefits from an employer in exchange for valid consideration from the employer.” That’s exactly what Olejniczak was asking for and what Deetjen brushed aside.
Pensions have been a source of heated discussion over the last three years with Village Manager Larry Deetjen and Mayor Sandra Bury calling the pension system “unsustainable” at various times. In every instance pensions have been discussed, the finger has always been pointed at union level employees and at Springfield legislators until Olejniczak suggested that Deetjen could show leadership by agreeing to reduce or eliminate his own pension.
Oak Lawn’s Legislative License and Ethics Committee is scheduled to meet today at 4:30 p.m. and the issue of pension reform is on the agenda. Trustee Olejniczak is a member of the committee, but no information was provided in the posting to indicate whether Olejniczak will raise his proposal in the committee or whether the earlier discussion was just for the cameras.
Click HERE to read the case. The original video recorded debate can be seen below.
Jacob H. Huebert, Senior Attorney with the Liberty Justice Center, sent an email blast the day the decision was published, saying that allowing governmental units to contract with individuals for a reduction in pension benefits would be a step in the right direction. Another attorney who reviewed the case and is familiar with Deetjen’s argument as well as Olejniczak’s idea said that the case removes all of Deetjen’s excuses and provides Olejniczak an opportunity to pass a reform if he has the votes. The attorney, experienced in municipal law, asked not to be identified due to his relationship with several Trustees. He said that he “believed” that Olejniczak was serious in pursing the reform and was not “playing for the cameras”.
According to its website, “the Liberty Justice Center is a non-profit, non-partisan public-interest litigation center that fights to protect economic liberty, private property rights, free speech, and other fundamental rights in Illinois and beyond. First and foremost, the Liberty Justice Center seeks to ensure that the rights to earn a living and to start a business, which are essential to a free and prosperous society, are available not just to a politically privileged few, but to all. The Liberty Justice Center pursues its goals through strategic, precedent-setting litigation to revitalize constitutional restraints on government power and protections for individual rights.”