Park Ridge President Responds to Fire Chief Issue
By Brandi Makuski
The Park Ridge Village President is remaining tight-lipped on potential disciplinary action the village may take against its fire chief.
According to village documents, leaders in Park Ridge scheduled a special board meeting on July 6 to discuss “employment and potential disciplinary proceedings” against Chief Brian Lepper, who has led the small fire department since 2014. No reason for the potential discipline, which was slated for discussion in closed session, was listed on the meeting agenda — a typical caution for municipal governments when dealing with employee matters.
But that meeting was cancelled a few hours prior to its scheduled start time of 5:30 PM for undisclosed reasons, though some residents — including Board Member Steven Bergin — came to the village hall anyway, unaware of the cancellation.
When asked for comment on the agenda item, Lepper declined to answer any questions, saying he was no longer allowed to speak with any media outlets except on the scene of an emergency.
Village President Trish Baker said she couldn’t directly address the agenda item, either.
“That would be an employment matter; I would never comment on that,” Baker said, when asked if Lepper had ever been the subject of a closed-session disciplinary action in the past. “It would be inappropriate on my part.”
Asked for comment on why Lepper was no longer allowed to speak with the media, Baker said, “Again, that would be an employment issue. Chief Lepper is an employee of the village. He’s appointed, actually. I guess I’ll just leave it at that.”
When asked if she could summarize the village’s legal process of removing any appointed employee — not Lepper specifically — from their position, Baker became defensive.
“Oh my goodness; why would you ask me that question? That’s not where we’re at; that’s not part of the process. I just won’t comment on that,” she said. “That assumes a particular disposition that I’m not going to go on [sic]. It’s all employment issues, and it’s not appropriate for me to discuss employment issues with the press.”
Baker was also asked if the process of enforcing disciplinary action on an appointed village employee was different from the process involving a non-appointed employee, but said she felt “really uncomfortable” answering specific questions, and referred City Times staff to the village’s legal counsel.
Baker did confirm the cancellation was not a precautionary measure based on a severe storm watch that was issued Thursday afternoon.
She also confirmed there were plans to reschedule the meeting, and the board would likely discuss “the same topic” in closed session at a later time, but did not elaborate.
Since taking the job, Lepper has been combating a shrinking volunteer roster and a tight budget, but has also implemented various fundraisers and community events to, as he put it, “boost morale” at the department.
Lepper had also worked with previous village officials to improve conditions at the small department — which has outdated equipment that barely fits into its garage — but that relationship has been strained since Trish Baker — who wants the village to consider dissolving the 70-year-old fire dept. in favor of contracting fire services with Stevens Point — was elected as village president in April.
Baker is the former Portage Co. Clerk of Courts and currently practices law privately. She also serves on the Stevens Point School Board, and previously ran an unsuccessful bid for Portage Co. Circuit Court Judge in 2015.
The village’s legal counsel, attorney Bob Konkol, was not immediately available for comment.