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Delayed reform sparks racially tinged clash in county board room

Friday, January 20, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

The fate of administrative reforms at Cook County hospitals led to a bitter clash Thursday between board President John Stroger and his political rival, Commissioner Forrest Claypool.

After Claypool (D-Chicago) accused Stroger of illegally ignoring the will of the county board, Stroger told Claypool that "black people ... know phonies when they see them."

The argument, the fiercest so far in an otherwise peaceful budget hearing process, led to several minutes of shouting and budget hearing chairman John Daley's terse request to take "this debate for county president ... out of this room."

Both men are running for president in the Democratic primary.

In last year's budget debate, the county board ordered the $1 billion health bureau to consolidate duplicated departments at county health facilities — such as finance, human resources and public relations — by the end of last year. Claypool and other supporters of the measure said it would save $8 million a year.

It has not happened. Bureau chief Daniel Winship told the Daily Southtown earlier this month that he had prepared a report on the consolidation but that Stroger "has not wanted to receive it yet."

On Thursday, he said reports for consolidating finance and public relations were still being finalized, while a report on consolidating human resources "has been submitted to the president for review."

Claypool said he wanted to know why the bureau hadn't met the deadline.

"The board instructed the health bureau how to reduce costs far in excess of what you've done," Claypool said. "And that has been ignored. ... Perhaps, President Stroger, you'd be willing to answer my question as to why you've ignored the will of the board?"

Stroger did, unleashing a 12-minute diatribe against Claypool.

"You made it impossible for us to service people over at the hospital ... because you decided you were saving some middle-class taxpayers or rich people a few dollars," Stroger said. "And the people see it! Don't think that because black people don't live in those high-rise buildings over there, that they don't know what is needed. And they know phonies when they see them. As a matter of fact, whether they're black or white, they can spot a phony."

Claypool shot back that Stroger was using the poor to advance his political position.

"A person pushing paper, a bureaucrat in the finance office ... does not draw one vial of blood," Claypool said. "What they do is ... take up millions and millions and millions of dollars that could be used to help the poor people that you disingenuously hide behind. As if you're serving poor people by protecting politically connected bureaucrats, when the reality is it's siphoning away money from health care."

As for the consolidation plan, Stroger said he was reviewing it and was willing to work with commissioners, but didn't want to rush into it.

"We have our bureau ... doing evaluations and things to make certain we don't have too many people," Stroger said. "But we want to be reasonable in our approach, because the public hospital draws more people than the average hospital."

Winship also answered questions from Claypool and other commissioners concerned about nursing levels. The nurses union has accused the hospital of cutting almost 37 full nursing positions at county hospitals and clinics.

Winship said no nursing position has been cut. The amount of money for nurses salaries was reduced because it takes months to hire each nurse, so setting aside money for each position for a full year was wasteful.

"We are out there constantly trying to hire nurses," bureau finance director Alvin Holley said. "It's based on historical trends."

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