Compulsory retirements were accidentally removed from a Topeka ordinance. City council didn't vote to add it back

Blaise Mesa
Topeka Capital-Journal
Topeka City Council voted against mandatory retirements ages in emergency services.

Language requiring staff members at the fire department to retire at 60 and the police department at 67 was accidentally removed from a Topeka city ordinance in 2019.

A Topeka City Council vote Tuesday to add that language back into the ordinance failed.

“This is the procedure that we have followed for a long time,” said City Manager Brent Trout. “It just so happens that there was a mistake related to passing an ordinance that took it out. We would have never proposed to take it out. It was simply deleted unintentionally.”

In 2019, it was recommended that a benefits section, chapter 2.140, be repealed entirely. It was later discovered that section 2.140.280, or compulsory retirement, was part of that section and should have remained.

The vote to add the language back in was split 4-4, with five votes required to pass. Council member Mike Lesser wasn’t present at the meeting and didn’t vote. The mayor wasn’t allowed to vote because the item was home-rule ordinance.

Council members Karen Hiller, Spencer Duncan, Christina Valdivia-Alcalá and Tony Emerson voted against mandatory retirement ages.

Emerson said he couldn’t support an amendment that would make someone retire, while other council members were worried the ordinance language didn’t apply to the police chief.

“Do we not worry about that opening us up to not treating everyone in the department … equal?” Duncan asked during the meeting.

Chief of Staff and former police chief Bill Cochran said the police chief is usually a contracted position and wouldn’t have similar retirement guidelines.

Interim police chief Brian Wheeles, 49, said he can’t remember the last time a chief was older than 67. He said the department is in support of the changes.

Proponents of re-adding the language included council members Sylvia Ortiz, Neil Dobler, Hannah Naeger and Mike Padilla — a former police officer — said the updates were a matter of public safety.

Padilla said it is possible for an older police officer to be assigned to desk duty, but any officer could be called into action if a need arises. Some members of the governing body were concerned older members of either department might not be able to adequately do their duties.

There are fitness tests that can be done to see if members of either department are still fit for work, but deeming someone unfit for a job can be difficult. A fitness test is required to get the position with no additional tests required once employed.

Retirement ages was one of the handful of action items at Tuesday night's meeting. Discussion on the Capital Improvement Plan was pushed later in April.