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Let Claypool run the show

Friday, July 14, 2006
Chicago Tribune

Cook County Democratic committeemen are free to further trash their party's reputation by treating public office as a cheap bauble to be bequeathed and inherited. If the clout crowd slates the unqualified Ald. Todd Stroger (8th) on Tuesday to complete his father's run for presidency of the County Board, voters still can decide in November whether to elect or reject him.

The decision with more immediate impact may come Wednesday, when the County Board commissioners are scheduled to choose one of their number to serve the last four months of John Stroger's current term. There's been much intrigue over how that decision will play out. But the best outcome is obvious: The board's Democrats and Republicans should come together to select Forrest Claypool as interim president--and then selflessly help him solve budget and other problems that have festered for months.

Claypool can use this time to begin containing costs at a government that has swollen to a size taxpayers can no longer afford. He'd certainly have help from fellow Commissioner John Daley.

Daley was interested in the interim presidency but recused himself when some power brokers began playing race cards. But in his role as the board's finance chairman, Daley has urged the county's elected officials to help fix a gaping budget hole by spending only 96 percent of their appropriated funds. (The returns aren't all in, but some officials are cooperating and some are not. Stay tuned.) Daley also has shown interest in consolidating redundant offices and cracking down on the abysmally managed patronage pit that passes for Cook County's health operations.

There's still some chatter about drafting Daley against his wishes. But Claypool definitely wants the job and can do it.

Commissioners, this is your chance to launch the long overdue reform of county government. This interim presidency shouldn't be about petty party loyalties or who once promised to support whom. This decision is about the rescue of a failing government that belongs to hard-pressed taxpayers who expect the muscular leadership they just don't see at the County Building.

Whoever serves as interim president will have to produce instant savings and a difficult new budget. Public awareness of the county's chronic refusal to curtail costs means that tax increases can't seriously be on the table. A board that has dug itself into a deep hole by overspending--and by refusing to streamline a government of 26,000 employees--has to change course.

If Democrats and Republicans who see themselves as reformers on the board can come to agreement, that can happen. Claypool demonstrated during the primary campaign that he has the ideas and the will to get the job started. Unfortunately, he won't be interim president long enough to finish it. He can, though, begin enough reforms that the board president who is elected in November can't easily turn back the clock.

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