Fire board chairman ‘elated’ over dismissal of union’s suit

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Aaron Hilmer is “elated” over a judge’s ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed against the board by Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Local 1889 filed the lawsuit against the district’s three board members — Hilmer, Treasurer Bonnie Stegman and Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr. — in late June, asking the court to prohibit the board from implementing a disability benefit contract with Standard Insurance and eliminating current disability benefits from the district’s existing pension plan.

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Crancer granted a preliminary injunction in early August prohibiting enactment of the proposed changes to the district’s disability plan. Crancer ruled that the Board of Directors did not follow the proper procedures to change retirement benefits under state law and the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. She also ruled that the Board of Directors did not violate the state’s Meet and Confer Law or the Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

On Feb. 24, Crancer granted the board’s motion for a summary judgment, dissolving the preliminary injunction and dismissing Local 1889’s suit.

Asked about Crancer’s judgment, Hilmer said, “I was elated for a couple reasons. No. 1 that the judge upheld the power of the board, but No. 2 that Mrs. Stegman and myself can finish out the final area of reform for which we were elected.”

He added, “… Right now I’m working as hard as possible. Over the next two weeks I expect to lead the board in swift and decisive final action regarding the pension plan — actually in three areas: The termination of the existing defined benefit plan; the starting of a new defined contribution plan; and, thirdly, dealing with the medical reviews we have done on people who are on disability.”

The district’s Pension Committee will meet at 6 p.m. today — March 9 — at the district headquarters, 11020 Mueller Road, Green Park.

Attorney Mathew Hoffman, who represents the Mehlville Fire Protection Dis-trict, also was pleased with Crancer’s ruling.

“We are pleased with the judge’s decision and we look forward to moving on with the business of the district,” he said.

John Goffstein, an attorney representing Local 1889, was unavailable for comment before the Call’s press time.

However, Goffstein’s firm has filed a motion for a new trial and a motion for specific findings of fact. The motions ask, among other things, that Crancer:

• Enter an order setting aside her Feb. 24 ruling granting the board’s motion for summary judgment.

• Enter an order extending the preliminary injunction, pending a new trial.

Of the motions filed by Goffstein’s firm, Hoffman said, “The plaintiffs in this case are requesting that the judge basically review her prior order dissolving their petition. In my opinion, the judge properly ruled that the Board of Directors has statutory authority to initiate a change in the district’s disability coverage.”

He added, “We’re optimistic that the judge will reaffirm her decision.”

Litigation between Local 1889 and the Board of Directors has been under way for roughly nine months.

The board unanimously approved a disability plan through Standard Insurance on June 6. District employees then were covered by two disability plans — the Standard Insurance plan and the original self-funded disability benefits that were part of the district’s pension plan.

In a June 16 letter, Goffstein warned board members that they may be sued by union employees if changes were made to the district’s pension plan.

At the June 20 meeting, the board voted 2-1, with Ottoline opposed, to approve an amendment to remove the original disability benefits from the pension plan for injuries that occurred after July 1. Employees then would be covered by the Standard Insurance plan, which extended around-the-clock coverage to employees, but reduced the maximum benefit payments by 15 percent.

At the Sept. 26 meeting of the Pension Committee, the Board of Directors selected a financial company that will study the district’s pension plan and offer options for change, including switching from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

However, as long as the preliminary injunction was in place, the board could not make changes to the pension plan.

In her Feb. 24 ruling, Crancer stated, “This court has never questioned the power of the defendants to enact the proposed changes, only the manner in which the proposed changes were sought to be implemented.”

Since the preliminary injunction was issued, the board has complied with the statutory requirements to enact the changes, the judgment stated, noting an actuarial study was prepared by Milliman “with regard to the proposed change in the disability coverage and was provided to the Joint Committee on Public Employee Retirement for the state of Missouri on Aug. 3, 2005.”

The ruling noted the remaining issue “is the breach of a fiduciary duty owed to the plaintiffs by the board and its members. The court finds that plaintiffs’ allegations of commingling of assets is serious, but unsubstantiated by any witness or competent evidence in the filings before this court.”

The ruling also noted, “The court further finds that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law on all counts in the petition. The preliminary injunction is dissolved and plaintiffs’ petition is dismissed.”

Hilmer said he believes Crancer’s ruling affirms everything he and Stegman have been saying about the board’s authority to enact changes to the disability and pension plans.

“It’s a shame we had to waste time and resources to get to this conclusion, which we knew I guess nine months ago,” Hilmer said.

“… What I take out of the lawsuit ranges from disturbing to absurd. It’s disturbing to see in Mr. Goffstein’s motions he referred to Mrs. Stegman as ‘Bobblehead Bonnie.’ He claims she just nods her head in agreement with everything I do. That’s disturbing to see the employees that Mr. Goffstein represents would write that. To derogate someone who signs your paycheck doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And then to the absurd when Mr. Goffstein asked the judge to remove us from office,” he said.

Hilmer added, “One other thing that struck me through this whole lawsuit process was the amount of mudslinging and personal attacks, which Mr. Goffstein engaged in his motions and in his depositions — things that had nothing to do with the disability benefit. But then again, that’s all I’ve seen from Mr. Goffstein’s clients for the past 10 months.”