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Cooked County

Thursday, July 20, 2006
Chicago Tribune

John Daley spoke a great truth Wednesday as he nominated fellow Commissioner Bobbie Steele for interim president of the Cook County Board. "She knows the problems of the county," Daley offered.

How could she not? Many of those problems were sitting and standing around the boardroom, looking fearful for their jobs. So many fretful department heads and doe-eyed payrollers crammed into Wednesday's meeting that a line of mere citizen-taxpayers--hey, why make room for them?--couldn't get in the door.

Precious few of those County Building apparatchiks had any real business at the meeting--the sole purpose of which was to decide who will serve out the final four-plus months of the incapacitated John Stroger's current term.

The day's priceless moment: seeing the stunned looks on all those county faces when the meeting's chair, Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, gamely said he was certain, just certain, that they all had taken vacation time to skip out of work. Right.

Still, the selection of Steele as interim president seemed to calm the nervous payrollers. They had dreaded the prospect that a reform commissioner, Forrest Claypool, might prevail and actually start to slash at the fat in county government.

Yes, Steele talked her own game of reform Wednesday when she asked for her fellow board members' votes. The payrollers briefly furrowed their brows when she told the commissioners, "The taxpayers are fed up with poor service and waste." Nice words. But the relieved payrollers see Steele as a safe, reliable John Stroger loyalist who won't lay off Democratic patronage hires.

If that proves to be the case, you can stick a fork in what we ought to start calling Cooked County. Nobody knows how big the county's budget shortfall will be for the 2006 fiscal year that ends in November. But to pick a number, Steele has to slash county spending by $1 million a day to balance that budget.

Maybe Steele will demand that county government make long overdue cuts. Or maybe she'll stick to the Stroger playbook: Talk and talk about economizing--but don't even think about dismantling the patronage system that has produced so much structural inefficiency and so many do-little employees.

There were lots of dutiful nods during Wednesday's meeting to the pathbreaking reform proposals that Claypool and fellow Democratic Commissioner Michael Quigley have been drafting for years. Republicans Gregg Goslin and Peter Silvestri came to the meeting with their own lists of cost-saving ideas that Steele could ask the County Board to implement immediately. But unless you read that Steele is cutting the county's plump payroll, don't bet that she can reduce spending by a real $1 million a day.

We hope Steele follows all this advice and rescues Cooked County. But it's early to celebrate. Several of the commissioners who elected Steele interim president have long records of supporting whatever tax increase will cover whatever gross hiring and spending catches their fancy.

Which delivers us to John Daley's other shrewd observation Wednesday, after so many of his fellow commissioners paid lip service to making county government efficient. What we have here, Daley confided, is a County Board that knows it can't raise taxes. He's right. This government is too swollen, too political, too resented by taxpayers who've had enough.

So, Interim President Steele, good luck. Just keep murmuring, "$1 million a day."

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