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Ottoline reads 'formal protest' letter; says district wasting taxpayers' money


December 07, 2005 - The Mehlville Fire Protection District is wasting taxpayers' money, according to Board of Directors Secretary Dan Ottoline Sr.

During a Board of Directors meeting last week, Ottoline read a letter outlining his "formal protest'' of the board's recent decision to seek to move a lawsuit filed by Local 1889 of the International Associa-tion of Fire Fighters to federal court.

During an Oct. 14 closed session, Chair-man Aaron Hilmer and Treasurer Bonnie Stegman voted to authorize the district's legal counsel to file a notice of removal that sought to move the lawsuit to U.S. Dis-trict Court, Eastern District of Missouri, from St. Louis County Circuit Court.

Ottoline was absent from the Oct. 14 meeting.

In a Nov. 22 ruling, U.S. District Judge Rodney W. Sippel remanded the lawsuit back to St. Louis County Circuit Court.

In his Nov. 30 letter, Ottoline stated, "... I made my position on the matter of filing a notice of removal to U.S. District Court perfectly clear to (Mehlville Fire Protec-tion District) attorney Matt Hoffman prior to the Oct. 14, 2005, meeting date. I was opposed to taking the above-mentioned action then — and I am still opposed. I feel that the Mehlville Fire Protection District is wasting taxpayer money.''

In his letter, Ottoline stated he had been contacted by District Clerk Carla Juelfs and asked if he could attend a board meeting on Oct. 14.

"I told her 'no' because of a prior commitment that I had planned on 'non-traditional' MFPD board meeting days — Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I further explained to Carla Juelfs that I would be back in town on Sunday, October the 16th, and could attend a meeting on October the 17th, Monday,'' Ottoline stated. "Monday had been the 'traditional' day of the week for board meetings. Nevertheless, the meeting was scheduled after Chairman Hilmer should have been advised that I would not be able to attend the Oct. 14th meeting.''

Ottoline also cited in his letter a provision of the Missouri Opening Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, which generally allows members of a public governmental body to participate in a meeting and vote without being physically present, for example, by telephone.

But if the governmental body is comprised of members who are all elected, Ottoline's letter stated, the law requires "that members be physically present and in attendance at a meeting when votes are to be taken by roll call. In an emergency, less than a quorum of the body may participate by phone, Internet or other means, but only if a quorum of the members are physically present at the meeting location ... I was not present and was not afforded the opportunity to participate by phone, Internet or other means, as provided, in my opinion, by law.''

After Ottoline finished reading his letter, Hilmer said, "Thank you, Mr. Ottoline.''

Local 1889 filed the lawsuit against the district's three board members 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.

In early June, the board unanimously approved a disability plan through Stan-dard Insurance. 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.

On June 20, 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.

St. Louis County Circuit 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 Di-rectors 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.

Though Sippel remanded the lawsuit back to state court, Hilmer and Hoffman are optimistic his ruling ultimately will allow the board to proceed with proposed changes to the district's disability plan.

Hoffman previously told the Call that he intends to file a dispositive motion that, if granted by Crancer, would lift the injunction.

At the Sept. 26 meeting of the district's 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 de-fined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. However, as long as the preliminary injunction is in place, the district will not be able to make changes to the pension plan.

In related action, the board approved two motions related to the proposed termination of the existing pension plan. Hilmer and Stegman voted in favor of the mo-tions, while Ottoline was opposed.

Hilmer said, "... As we're moving along on the possible termination of the existing pension plan and implementing a new one, the next step is we need to engage Milli-man ... to do a study on the proposed termination of the existing pension plan. Having said that, I make a motion to authorize Milliman to perform an actuarial study on the proposed termination of the pension plan.''

After the motion was approved, Hilmer made a motion to hire Thompson Coburn.

"In the same vein also for the proposed change, we need to bring in some outside — or we'd like to bring in some outside counsel, counsel that specializes only in the pension arena to help make sure all our T's are crossed and our I's are dotted. I've spoken with Thompson Coburn, a firm in downtown St. Louis. They have two lawyers who specialize in this ...,'' he said.

Ottoline said, "You've talked to these attorneys. Have they come in and talked to us? We don't know anything about them.''

Hilmer said, "Well, like I said, it's a very specialized thing.''

He asked Hoffman how many attorneys specialize in this type of work and Hoff-man replied, "There's five to 10 in town that handle these kind of issues and can determine the viability of that kind of a switch over ...''

Ottoline asked how much the cost will be and Hilmer said the firm charges $330 an hour.

Ottoline said, "Like I said before, we're saving money and now we're spending money.''

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