A new four-year agreement with union members of the police department not only guarantees wages and benefits, but also gives the police chief greater authority in disciplinary matters while wresting such power from a municipal committee.

Previously, Chief Jim Ryan had the ability to suspend an officer for a maximum of five days for violations of the department’s policy on conduct. More serious sanctions were subject to a disciplinary hearing, which would be conducted in view of the public, before the Fire and Police Commission. Under the new agreement, approved Monday night by the village council, those hearings will be scrapped and Ryan can suspend an officer for up to 30 days.

“It absolutely gives the chief more authority, and rightfully so,” Village Administrator Mike Sturino said.

Suspensions and terminations will now be appealed to an independent arbitrator, not the Fire and Police Commission. A federal agency-the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service-would handle those proceedings and in all likelihood the public would be shut out from hearing details of the dispute.

An officer’s request for arbitration must be filed by the union, not the individual employee.

“It’s not going to be an open process,” Mayor Anthony Calderone said during the council meeting. “None of the cops want to see another 18-month, drag-it-out, try-it-in-the-newspaper [hearing]. None of them want to do that.”

A change in the state law regarding fire and police commissions prompted discussions on the issue, and union members were the first at the bargaining table to point to the change, according to village officials.

Illinois law still allows municipal fire and police commissions to consider disciplinary cases. However, a provision in the statute gives local government an out, allowing them to create an “alternative or supplemental form of due process based upon impartial arbitration as a term of a collective bargaining agreement.”

That bargaining process could be chucked all together, according to state law, if the parties agree to do so. The state provides no minimum standards for the hearings process, stating “any such alternative agreement shall be permissive.”

Forest Park’s attorney, Mike Durkin, said many communities in Illinois are making similar changes. Police unions, in part, are concerned that politically appointed commission members are “more sympathetic to management,” he said. The process outlined in the village’s new union agreement is also more efficient.

“It made no sense to me … to go through a full-blown evidentiary hearing before the commission, then turn around and do it again in arbitration,” Durkin said.

In recent years, the village’s Fire and Police Commission has been a busy group. Two senior officers-represented by the same attorney-went before the commission on separate charges. One of the officers, former sergeant Dan Harder, was fired and one other, former lieutenant Steve Johnsen, resigned. Both maintained they were unjustly targeted by the police chief and Mayor Anthony Calderone.

For Harder, the hearings process lasted 11 months and helped scandalize the department with sometimes flamboyant testimony from both sides. The process was also expensive for the municipality, costing an estimated $200,000 for the hearings alone, according to Sturino. That figure does not include payments made by the village’s insurance company or expenses incurred outside of any public proceedings.

Using an independent arbitrator would help the village avoid “any more circuses,” said Sturino.

Coincidentally, the village council also approved a settlement Monday night in Harder’s federal lawsuit.

According to the contract with the union, if a grievance cannot be settled by the deputy chief, the police chief, the village administrator or the mayor, arbitration is the next step. A panel of seven federal arbitrators will be whittled to one as each side takes turns striking names from the list, according to the contract. That one arbitrator will hear the case, and both parties will share the costs of arbitration.

The ability to terminate a union member rests solely with the mayor, or whomever the mayor passes that power to, and can be appealed to arbitration