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Commissioners: Who's running county?

Thursday, May 04, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

Threats of a strike by Cook County nurses and fears of a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall have county commissioners asking a simple question:

Who's in charge?

Seven weeks after County Board President John Stroger was hospitalized with a stroke, his top aide insists Stroger's still running things -- even saying Stroger is making decisions about county government operations.

That flies in the face of earlier comments from Stroger's own family, who have said they aren't discussing county business with him.

And because chief of staff James Whigham won't say what decisions Stroger is making and refused to answer further questions about it, even many Stroger allies say they don't believe it's happening.

And it also has many researching the state statutes that cover county governments -- including the notation that if a board president has an "inability to act," then the county board can replace him.

"But there hasn't been a test of 'ability' ever used in American politics," said UIC professor and former Ald. Dick Simpson. "Someone could enter an order that the seat is vacated, but that would be a very unpopular thing to do. No one's running to do that."

Wednesday's county board meeting marked the first time that anyone has publicly dared to wonder about the impact Stroger's health is having on county operations.

Commissioner Forrest Claypool -- who lost the Democratic primary to Stroger -- raised the question, but was cut off by President Pro-Tempore Joseph M. Moreno.

Commissioners, staff clash

"There's not a single person in this room who doesn't want to see President Stroger sitting back at that desk," Claypool said. "But the truth is, we haven't heard from him in months and we don't know . . . who's running this government."

Last month, Whigham insisted he is in charge of day-to-day operations, but that offended some, including Commissioner Bobbie Steele, who said "I'd suggest that staff be careful in making decisions we were elected to make."

Claypool asked if "unelected bureaucrats are making critical, important decisions that should be made by elected officials," but Whigham said "the county is being run, as always, by the president."

"No one has declared [Stroger] incapable," Moreno said.

But last week, Ald. Todd Stroger said his father is learning to talk again in what he expected to be a long recovery.

Todd Stroger couldn't be reached Wednesday.

Simpson said Stroger's situation is different from when Mayor Richard J. Daley suffered a stroke in 1974 -- as Daley's aides made it immediately clear the boss would be back.

"The most obvious way for commissioners to do something -- if no one from the family or administration steps forward," he said, "is for the commissioners to declare the seat vacant by means of ability."

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