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Your $7,705,994--for this fiasco?

Thursday, June 22, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Imagine voters elected you as one of 17 members of the Cook County Board. Your job is to manage a $3 billion budget. A slice of that budget--$7,705,994--goes to paying and operating the board itself. That money bankrolls your salary, your staff, your travel, the list goes on. So: Does that make you feel accountable to Cook County taxpayers? Or is it OK for you to take the money and do nothing to justify your existence?

For the board's current commissioners, the answers are "Nope" and "When's payday?"

Once again, those board members have demonstrated that they're aggressively abysmal managers of the people's business. With one of their number--board President John Stroger--out sick for what's now 100 days, the other 16 commissioners continued this week to find ways of doing nothing about a budget shortfall that is rising by the tens of millions as they dither.

There would be justice to this fiasco if somebody handed the tab to those commissioners who for years have refused to streamline and modernize their patronage-laden and grossly wasteful government. But, no. Guess who gets stuck with the bill when the board again refuses to slash fat expenses.

In Stroger's absence, as Commissioner Forrest Claypool notes, it's not clear what is happening: Either unelected bureaucrats on Stroger's staff are making key decisions or, just as bad, unelected bureaucrats aren't making key decisions.

Claypool, who narrowly lost a February primary election to Stroger, is one of several board members who have tried to get Stroger's loyalists on the board to just do their jobs. Claypool wants the board to divide into ad hoc committees to take up such pressing problems as how to cut the budget and how to instruct the county's labor negotiators on strategy as county nurses threaten to strike.

Claypool also wants to know if the county's health bureau, a cesspool of mismanagement, is ready to hire replacement workers to care for sick hospital patients if the nurses walk.

But most commissioners are focused instead on succession politics and protocols. They don't talk about solving county problems. They talk--and talk--about how long to wait for Stroger's family to reveal his prognosis.

Enough about the board presidency. Enough about politics and protocols. This much is certain: Cook County's challenges are serious and getting worse. John Stroger is away. His chief of staff, who admitted Tuesday that he last visited Stroger on June 7, claims Stroger is still in charge of county government. And most County Board members are content to accept that, let the clock run and collect $85,000 salaries.

Some do that because they face little or no opposition in the November election, when they'll likely win new four-year terms. What do they care, beyond lip service, about squandered budget dollars or sick hospital patients?

And how about you? Do you enjoy watching this fiasco? Just keep in mind the cost of your tickets: $7,705,994.

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