September 30, 2012

Bringing the details to surface

— When retired Logansport policeman Wesley Peters got word that former firefighters had settled their lawsuit with the city, he called the clerk-treasurer’s office to find out when he could pick up his check.

Peters, after all, had accepted the exact same early retirement deal as the firefighters. If they had vacation pay coming, he figured, he must have vacation pay coming, too.

Mayor Ted Franklin insists that’s not the case. He says the money paid to firefighters was a one-time deal, and that any other former city employees who feel they are owed vacation pay are welcome to get an attorney.

The mayor should reconsider his position.

Whether city officials want to admit it or not, the city has set a precedent here.

It settled with seven employees. Why wouldn’t it settle with an eighth? Why make him go out and hire a lawyer to rack up additional expense for the taxpayers to cover?

This is not to say that the settlement was a good deal.

Two police officers and seven firefighters accepted a buyout at the end of 2010. The city wrote them a check for $26,000 and agreed that it would cover their health insurance premiums for up to 13 years.

The firefighters turned out for a city council meeting the next month saying they had also expected a vacation check totalling more than $4,000 apiece. Council members said, “Sorry. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

The firefighters sued. The city refused to settle.

The city’s attorney at the time said vacation pay was earned in the year it was taken. The firefighters left the payroll in 2010, he said, so they weren’t entitled to vacation pay for 2011.

Previous retirees always got accumulated vacation, the former firefighters argued. Maybe so, the council replied, but previous retirees didn’t get a check for $26,000.

And then the administration changed, and a new council majority took office. Franklin, who is himself on leave from the fire department, cashed his own  vacation check in June. He asked for the leave in 2012, but he insisted at the time he would have been eligible for vacation pay even if he’d started the leave in  2011.

Three months later, the city cut a check to settle the lawsuit.

The precedent has been set. The city ought to give Peters his check.

Franklin told a reporter last week he was tired of talking about this issue.

Here’s a tip for the mayor and other elected officials: If you don’t want to keep answering questions about an issue, just lay out the facts in the first place.

We found out about this story the way we find out about lots of stories. Someone called us with a news tip.

When we started chasing the tip, we ran into a roadblock. The city had signed an agreement not to talk about the settlement. Its plan, apparently, had been to write a check and move on, leaving the taxpayers in the dark.

We managed to dig out information on the settlement through a public records request, but this sort of thing shouldn’t happen. The city should have come forward with details of this settlement as soon as it was final.

Frankly, those details are still a bit cloudy. We know the city and its insurance company wrote identical checks in the amount of $37,500. We know lawyers got some of that money and firefighters got the rest.

City officials should keep the public informed on decisions such as this one. They should lay out the details and explain the rationale. That’s the way the democratic process is supposed to work.

Kelly Hawes is managing editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5155 or