Belleville alderwoman wants drug tests for city workers, elected officials

News-DemocratAugust 31, 2013 

AP GRAPHIC

— After one St. Clair County judge died from a cocaine overdose and another is facing heroin possession charges, Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult is asking for all city employees and elected officials to take drug tests.

Hult made the request after news in May that St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook and probation officer James Fogarty were arrested on federal drug charges. Fellow Judge Joseph Christ died in March of cocaine toxicity while staying with Cook at a hunting cabin.

"I think it is prudent to reassure the public that the people they elected are clearheaded enough to make decisions and handle the money they've been entrusted with," Hult said.

Some city workers with commercial driver's licenses are already tested for drugs and starting Oct. 1, the Police Department will start random monthly drug testing of five employees each month.

Mayor Mark Eckert said Friday that city staff is researching the possibility of drug testing all city employees and elected officials per Hult's request.

The city will have to consider issues such as the cost of drug tests and whether the testing should be mandatory or voluntary, Eckert said.

"I have no problem submitting to a random drug test," Eckert said. "I'm certainly not opposed to it."

Eckert said Human Resources Director Jim Schneider is reviewing the city's nine union contracts and City Attorney Garrett Hoerner is researching whether elected officials could be mandated to take such tests.

So far, all of the union contracts have provisions for drug testing, Eckert said.

"I would want to set up a program that's consistent," Eckert said. "We want to find examples of other municipalities... and we would have to budget it."

Still, Eckert said he has only heard from Hult and a Belleville resident about drug testing. Both Hult and resident Dennis Weygandt spoke publicly at City Council meetings about the topic.

Dennis Weygandt spoke at a subsequent council meeting. He said it was common for employers to request drug tests and suggested testing hair samples as a reliable test.

He could not be reached for comment but Victoria Weygandt said her husband did not ask for drug testing in response to the courthouse drug scandal.

"We're not suspecting anybody of anything," said Victoria Weygandt, who previously ran for City Council. "I don't think any of them have anything to hide. Most companies have you drug tested so why shouldn't our council members get tested? If you're getting paid by taxpayers, why not? It's just a part of life these days."

Peggy Hartmann, of the city's Human Resources Department, said the city requires a drug test for all new hires prior to employment.

Each drug test, including random screenings during the year for some employees, cost $42.

The city is only required by law to test employees who have a commercial driver's license, which are mostly workers in the Sanitation, Sewer and Street departments, Hartmann said.

The city tests employees from the "CDL" pool quarterly and at least 50 percent of the staff has to be tested in a year. This amounts to about six people each quarter who undergo urine tests, Hartmann said.

The Police Department's drug testing policy affects union and non-union workers, and everyone from Police Chief Bill Clay to the records clerks, Hartmann said.

Police Capt. Don Sax said it has always been part of the police union contract that the department could initiate a drug testing program anytime.

"It was there primarily for if we suspected anyone in particular," Sax said. "So even before everybody was talking about it, long before the courthouse scandal hit, we really thought we should explore doing more."

In the past, the Police Department tested as a requirement of employment but not after.

Elsewhere in the metro-east, in Fairview Heights, union police officers are required to be tested yearly.

St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern and other county leaders have asked St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly to research legal issues related to expanding the county's drug testing policy.

Kelly has started drug testing his staff. St. Clair County Public Defender John O'Gara has said he has no plans to test his employees.

St. Clair County Chief Judge John Baricevic has said that judges cannot be required to take drug tests because they are elected. A judge, however, could be asked to take a test if he or she is suspected of using drugs.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the expansion of random drug testing as a violation of a person's privacy.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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