St. Clair County OKs more stringent drug testing policy

News-DemocratSeptember 30, 2013 

The St. Clair County Board has approved an expanded drug testing policy in the wake of a drug scandal involving two former judges and a probation officer in the county.

The new policy leaves the county open to legal action from its employees, according to a spokesman with the state's American Civil Liberties Union. The 28 members of the board present during a meeting Monday unanimously approved the policy.

St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly advised the board on the policy. "The policy was expanded to cover positions which the courts have generally ruled to be within the bounds of the Constitution -- no more, no less," Kelly said.

County employees within the public safety and highway departments were already tested for drugs. Now county officials can test all employees involved with confidential records related to the investigations of deaths, administering the drug testing program, access to drugs or work directly with students.

Elected officials are included in the policy. However, they may choose to remove themselves from the process used to randomly select employees for testing. Judges are a separate branch of government and excluded from the policy.

The new policy leaves the county open to litigation from employees or perhaps on behalf of their unions, according to Ed Yohnka with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

"What the courts have looked to in the past is the idea of testing people whose jobs really did pose a significant risk to public safety if they are using illegal drugs, and this clearly expands that to an almost unrecognizable notion," Yohnka said. "With all due respect to the tragedy that occurred (involving St. Clair County judges), some clerk who works in the courthouse losing their job over recreational use of drugs in the weekend is really not something the courts have traditionally recognized as something government should be involved in."

County officials may fire any employee who through a urine test is found to be using illegal drugs, according to the policy. However, department heads or elected officials can choose to offer the employee a "Last Chance Agreement" to avoid being fired.

Should it be offered, the agreement would allow the employee to receive substance abuse treatment instead of termination.

The county's new approach is a "sad reflection of what is now almost 40 years of flawed policy" concerning drugs, Yohnka said. Instead of punishing employees, Yohnka said county officials should treat substance abuse as an illness.

"If you are going to include this treatment, it should not be optional or up to the discretion of a supervisor," Yohnka said. "If you really care about employees and want to protect the public's safety, it is the one thing that ought to be offered."

The change was spurred by the cocaine overdose of St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Joe Christ. Christ died at the hunting lodge of former Circuit Judge Michael Cook. Cook faces federal drug and weapon-related charges.

Cook resigned his judgment in May and faces a court date in December. The Illinois Supreme Court approved suspending his law license in July.

Former St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty faces federal drug and weapon charges. Fogarty allegedly intended to distribute cocaine and possessed a gun while being a drug user.

In other news, the board did not vote on a proposal to place more control of MidAmerica airport in the hands of County Board members as opposed to the Public Building Commission. The proposal is co-sponsored by four board members, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Proponents of the proposed legislation expected the proposal to be considered for a vote by the full board. However, the legislation was postponed in committee.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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