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Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge will continue to share fire chief

Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge have shared a fire chief since 2014, and by mutual agreement between the neighboring villages, Chief George Sheets will continue wearing two hats for at least four more years.

The Oak Lawn Village Board passed the new intergovernmental agreement to continue the arrangement last week without much comment, and the Chicago Ridge Village Board followed suit at its meeting on Tuesday.

“I don’t see any reason to change the agreement. It has been working out well for everyone,” said Chicago Ridge Mayor Chuck Tokar before the board approved it unanimously.

Oak Lawn, being the larger community, covers two-thirds of Sheets’ salary, in addition to benefits, and Chicago Ridge is responsible for one-third. The exact salary agreement was not available this week, but Tokar said it costs the village about $50,000 annually. Sheets, who lives in Oak Lawn, said the agreement calls for the Chicago Ridge portion of the salary to increase by 5 percent each year.

The relationship between management and members of the firefighters union in Oak Lawn has been difficult at times in recent years, primarily due to staffing and other issues that have led to lawsuits. But everyone in Chicago Ridge seems to agree that having Sheets on board has worked out very well.

Prior to the vote on Tuesday, Chicago Ridge Fire Lt. Chris Schmelzer, president of the Chicago Ridge Firefighters Union Local 3098, sent Tokar a glowing recommendation letter regarding Sheets’ value to the department, and asked him to share it with the trustees.

Schmelzer cited several accomplishments that have been achieved under Sheets’ leadership in Chicago Ridge, including the introduction of a part-time firefighter program in which part-time and full-time staff work together. This has also allowed for the opening of the Lombard Avenue fire station. That station initially opened part-time, but was expanded to full-time this year, providing ambulance service to the main residential section of the village.

Schmelzer also acknowledged in the letter that union members did not initially welcome Sheets.

“To say he wasn’t welcomed with open arms would be an understatement of the grandest kind,” said the union president. “I don’t have a problem admitting when I made a mistake, and this was one of them,” he added.

“As an officer of the department I can say that he gives the managerial staff the latitude to perform their duties without undue interference. Micromanagement does not seem to be in his vocabulary,” Schmelzer said. “He has dealt with adversity better than anyone,” said Schmelzer, adding that Sheets’ style of leadership has resulted in all grievances being settled “in house” without involving committees or the Village Board.

In his letter to the mayor, Schmelzer also said Sheets’ management style, and realignment of the chain of command, has improved the department mindset.

“In my 21 years with this department, morale has never been higher. We have gone from a stagnant, disgruntled group of employees that a lot of other departments looked down upon, to a proud, active team that is a model of success,” added Schmelzer.

“I’m having a fantastic time with the shared arrangement. Today, I realized that I’ve been in the profession for 36 years with 21 of those years as a career fire chief,” said Sheets on Tuesday.

Last year, there was talk that he might leave the Chicago Ridge role after seeing projects through to completion, including the part-time program and the opening of the Lombard Avenue station.

“At this time, I have no intentions of retirement. I enjoy what I’m doing and I am having fun doing it,” said Sheets, describing the shared arrangement as “fantastic.”

He splits his days between the two villages, and their close proximity allows him to travel between his offices quickly.

“What started out as an experiment in regionalism has proven to be extremely successful. Of course, I would not be as successful if not for the trust and confidence of Mayor Tokar, and the assistance of President Schmelzer and the buy-in from the membership.

Chris is certainly a master at negotiating, but equally as important, he is an exceptional leader in labor/management relations,” said Sheets.

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