First reported 7/14/2009 12:02 p.m.

Some municipal employees in Forest Park have traded their health benefits for cash. The compensation option, not spelled out in any employee handbook, wasn’t offered to every non-union employee eligible for health insurance. And it’s unclear which employees were given the option of padding their paychecks this way.

According to two people familiar with these transactions, at least two non-union workers not opting for health insurance were paid cash in lieu of that benefit.

After this shadow package was hastily mentioned at Monday night’s council meeting, Mayor Anthony Calderone denied having direct involvement and said the cash payments were offered only to a single employee. He declined to name the employee and said he wasn’t familiar with such details as how much money was paid and over what period of time the payment was made.

He said those questions could be better answered by former village administrator Mike Sturino, who, according to Calderone, was responsible for authorizing the payments to that employee.

“I think we had one instance in which a payment was made to one person, but that is not the general practice,” Calderone said.

In a subsequent interview with the Review, Sturino acknowledged trading medical benefits for cash with one employee. But, Sturino said, that was a practice in place “well before” 2005, when he started with the village. The first employee to receive this benefit was offered a “straight payment,” Sturino said, in which the full value of the benefits was paid. The compensation package he offered the second employee was on a percentage basis, he said, resulting in what Sturino called a savings for the municipality.

“Generally, I did not operate in a vacuum,” Sturino said of his time with the village. “There weren’t any secrets from the elected officials.”

The practice isn’t necessarily a bad one, says Commissioner Marty Tellalian, who prodded the council’s discussion to reveal such swaps. If an employee is covered by a spouse’s medical insurance, there’s a savings for that employee. The problem in Forest Park, said Tellalian, is that there’s been no regulation of such transactions, which appear to be worked out in backroom negotiations.

Tellalian chided other municipal officials for being stingy with details about these swaps. He said he’s not sure how many employees are currently getting such payments, but said he believes there are two.

Council members said – and Sturino confirmed – the former administrator had drafted a set of policies to bring uniformity to the cash option, but that it never went before the council for a vote.

Pressed for details on why he offered the payments to one employee while knowing that other eligible workers hadn’t been given the option, Sturino ended the phone interview.

“You’re going to have to go back to the village,” Sturino said. “I don’t work there anymore.”

Tellalian forced the issue into the light when the mayor asked the council to approve revisions to the employee handbook. The lengthy document came without a summary or any explanation of the proposed changes. Tellalian demanded an explanation be given and attempted to table the decision. That vote failed and Commissioner Mike Curry quickly offered up a series of amendments altering the guidelines for the accumulation of sick leave.

At one point in the discussion, Tellalian repeated his request for more information and the remark was altogether ignored by the mayor.

“I’m serious,” Tellalian said in a forceful manner. “I would like some report.”

Immediately following the council’s meeting, Calderone defended the absence of a summary about the policy revisions. The responsibility for any analysis falls on the elected officials, Calderone said. Elected officials get a $10,000 annual stipend, said Calderone, which they can earn by doing a little homework on such proposals.

As for informing taxpayers of changes to compensation packages paid to public employees, the responsibility is the same, he said.

“You know the drill,” Calderone said, directing his comments to a reporter. “I would be happy to give you a copy of the handbook and you would have to do some work.”

On Tuesday morning, Calderone did not respond to e-mail and phone requests for additional comment.

“And that’s open government,” Tellalian said of Calderone’s remarks on providing a summary of proposed changes. “That’s transparent government? You can find out what we do, you just have to work?

“But have fun at Groov’n in the Grove, right.”