Messenger: Fitch wins pension battle in court, right place to settle matter | Tony Bote

The saga of Tim Fitch and his retirement has a better ending than a beginning.

On Thursday, St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Medler ordered the county to pay Fitch, a Republican county councilor, more than $245,000 in back pension payments he earned while serving as the county’s police chief. The payments had been withheld because of a law that says retirees who take up a job with the county cannot be paid annuity payments at the same time they are earning a salary. Council members receive $20,000 per year.

It’s a fair result. Fitch earned his pension through public service. It seems a little incongruous for a county not to want former police chiefs or transportation directors or health professionals or other professionals serving their county to have to make an enormous financial sacrifice to seek public office after retirement. Several current or former officials from both parties in St. Louis County have said they do not believe the law should apply to elected officials.

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But to understand what happened here and put it in context, it’s important to go back to the beginning of the story. When Fitch ran for the council seat he now holds in 2018, he knew he had a potential problem with his pension. We know this because he asked then-Councillor Colleen Wasinger to introduce an ordinance amending the law.

Wasinger, who is an attorney, declined. When Fitch was elected, he asked other council members to propose a change in the law, knowing he could lose his pension while on the council. Fitch knew he couldn’t do it himself. Why? It would be a clear conflict of interest for an incumbent councilor to seek a change in the law specifically to benefit financially.

In early 2019, when this happened, Sam Page, a Democrat, was chairman of the county council. He has nothing to do with the decision to stop Fitch’s pension payments. The district council made the decision. But Page and his colleagues saw the same conflict in that one of them was seeking a change in the law on Fitch’s behalf while Fitch was doing it himself. They refused to help him.

There was a strong story in their favor. Two years earlier, before he was convicted on federal corruption charges, then-district executive Steve Stenger pushed through a measure that allowed his close political ally, then-prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch, to expand his pension plan. Later, the council, believing they had been misled by Stenger, rolled McCulloch’s benefits back to the original amount.

Republican Ernie Trakas was the most zealous against changing the law in favor of Fitch:

“Every member of the Council and former members have put their careers on hold, taken furloughs and, in some cases, left their jobs … to serve,” Trakas said. “So the idea that a special exception should be carved out is an affront to those who did.”

Regardless of what you think of the law that was on the books, and whether it should apply to elected officials compared to other full-time employees who paid a higher salary, Fitch was stuck. At the time, he threatened to sue. That’s exactly what he should do, I wrote back in 2019: “Like a guy fighting a speeding ticket, Fitch gets to plead his case before a jury of his fellow taxpayers.”

By the time Fitch filed his lawsuit, however, most people had forgotten the backstory. Instead, for some, this was just another battle between Page, who had since become a district executive, and Fitch, his chief critic.

But that story — unlike some others that have been hanging around Page’s neck like a political albatross lately — never really had anything to do with him. There was a law about the books. Fitch, the former police chief, didn’t think it applied to him.

The right solution — unless Fitch, a law-and-order guy, wanted to be charged with political corruption — would always be in court. Now that he has his pension (assuming the county doesn’t appeal it), Fitch has no conflict of interest to come up with a proposal to clarify the law so it’s clear in the future who it may or may not apply to.

That would be a nice ending to this saga. Who knows? The precinct executive and former police chief might even end up on the same page.

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