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Steele takes reins as County Board chief

Thursday, July 20, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by SCOTT FORNEK Political Reporter

Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele was unanimously elected Wednesday to fill out the remaining four months in the term of ailing former County Board President John Stroger -- a promotion that could double her annual pension to $136,000 if she retires by December.
But Steele, a 20-year veteran of the board and grandmother of 13, said she has no plans to step down after her short stint as interim president and is looking to spend the following four years as a commissioner.
"There's always speculation going on," Steele said of the pension talk. "I haven't given that a thought."
Instead, the West Side Democrat said she would begin forming a strategy to make the most of her brief time in charge, which begins Aug. 1 and ends Dec. 4, when the winner of the November general election is sworn in.

Commissioner Bobbie Steele was named interim County Board president on Wednesday. (RICH HEIN/ SUN-TIMES)

Tax increase? Maybe

"We only have four months to accomplish a lot, but I think a lot can be put in place in those four months," she said.

Steele did not rule out a tax increase to help fill the county's budget deficit, saying, "I'm not closing the door" on it. But she said she would consider that option only after exhausting all efforts to cut and streamline county government.

The County Board chose Steele at a brief, harmonious meeting -- ending weeks of posturing, grandstanding and backstabbing as various politicians sought to fill the vacuum created by the stroke Stroger suffered one week before the March primary.

Steele's selection came one day after Cook County Democrats chose Ald. Todd Stroger (8th) to replace his father on the November ballot. Steele had been in the running for that position, as well, but she ultimately folded her candidacy -- a move that insiders said may have helped her pick up the votes she needed to win the interim president post.

Steele won on the first ballot, beating two other commissioners who hoped to claim the top spot -- Northwest Side Democrat Forrest Claypool and Mount Prospect Republican Carl Hansen.

Claypool, Hansen and four Republicans who initially backed Hansen all switched their votes to Steele when it became clear she already had the required simple majority.

"I'd like to abandon the sinking ship of my candidacy and climb aboard the S.S. Bobbie Steele," Claypool announced.

When she takes the reins Aug. 1, Steele will begin receiving the president's salary, which works out to $170,000 a year, double the $85,000 she receives as a commissioner.

'Todd should consult with me'

Elected county officials' annual pensions are 80 percent of their yearly salary at the time they retire. That means Steele could receive $136,000 a year if she calls it quits in December, twice the $68,000 she would get if she later retires as a commissioner.

Steele brushed off questions about her pension, but she sounded happy about the boost in her paycheck. "Don't you think I'm worth it, if I serve in this capacity?" she asked a reporter.

Steele couldn't resist a slight dig at Todd Stroger when a reporter asked her if she would consult with him about running the board over the next few months. "Consult with Todd?" she asked. "I think Todd should consult with me."

Todd Stroger's Republican rival, Commissioner Tony Peraica, said he would resist any efforts to raise taxes but that he is confident he can work with Steele.

"Commissioner Steele, I believe, has seen the light, has found religion and will do what the majority of this board votes . . . should be done," Peraica said. "And our agenda, as I stated, is to reduce the size of this government and lower the level of taxation."

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