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Hiring freeze? Cook County seems to be adding jobs

Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

Has somebody been frantically padding the payroll of Cook County government since President John Stroger's stroke in March?
You gotta wonder.
According to a couple of printouts I've seen for pay periods June 11, 2006, to July 8, 2006, it looks to me like the cash-strapped county has in just four weeks added 408 new employees. Everything from janitors, clerks and student administrative aides to laundry workers, law clerks and doctors.
Is there still a hiring freeze? You know, because Cook County is facing another giant deficit of about $140 million in the coming year, forcing it recently to open an emergency $200 million line of credit at 10 percent interest to pay its mounting bills.
"I'll have to check and get back to you," said county press spokeswoman Chinta Strausberg.
That freeze may have melted away.
Meanwhile, this very morning, the 15 commissioners of the Cook County Board will gather to pick one of their own to replace John Stroger as president. It will be a mere four-month appointment, a placeholder, until we voters go to the polls and pick a new president for ourselves in November.
Let's pray today's County Board meeting won't be the sweaty, pathetic spectacle we witnessed Tuesday as 80 ward and township committeemen sat cheek by jowl for the coronation of 8th Ward Ald. Todd Stroger. Surprise, surprise, an overwhelming majority of these dinosaurs of democracy decided to give Todd his dad's place on the ballot.
Though West Side Congressman Danny Davis stood before the bosses and presented his credentials in an eloquent baritone, he needn't have bothered. With the notable exception of 19 dissenters, the bulk of Cook County's ward bosses might as well have phoned in their votes and saved themselves the hot air that filled the third floor of the Hotel Allegro on Randolph.
"I urge you, my party leaders: please listen and hear the beat of the not-too-distant drum," warned Davis. "I tell you the drums are rumbling and the people want to be heard."
Drums? What drums?
The Democratic Party of Cook County couldn't hear the drumbeat back in 1983 when Harold Washington shocked them by beating Jane Byrne and Richard Daley in the mayoral primary. Or in the U.S. Senate primary of 2004 when voters chose Barack Obama over the party's endorsed candidate, Dan Hynes. Or in 2006, when at least two of the ward boss picks for judge were rejected by voters in favor of judicial winners Joy Cunningham and Ramon Ocasio.
And now, in this most tragic of all examples, they have been utterly deaf. How else can you explain the debacle the party has made of John Stroger's succession? We were lied to about John Stroger's illness, about his ability to conduct business, and about his mysteriously different signatures on three separate documents. It was only when the deadline had slipped by for independent candidates to file for the November election that we finally learned a little of the truth, that John Stroger was never coming back.
It's no wonder I can't get a good handle on all these ''new hires.''
But let me throw a few more numbers your way just for the heck of it.
According to county payroll reports, in early 2005, Cook County government had 25,060 employees. Just one year later, in early 2006, even BEFORE John Stroger's stroke, that number had shot up to 27,292. An increase of more than 2,000 workers.
Breathtaking, isn't it? In a time of severe financial crisis, the bloated payroll of Cook County took on more water.
And now, if I read the payroll documents on my desk correctly, in just this last month, another 408 people have landed on the payroll.
In fairness, maybe these "new hires" replace people who have retired, or quit, or were fired. Maybe some of them are just seasonal summer hires. Maybe some provide absolutely essential services. I'm trying to keep an open mind here but boy, is that a challenge.
Whoever wins the temporary board presidency today has a daunting task ahead of them. Possibly it will be Commissioner Bobbie Steele, a veteran of the board. Or, least likely, Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who nearly upset John Stroger in the primary.
Whoever it is, they've got just four months to figure out all the rest of the lies and secrets locked up by John Stroger's unelected staff. And just four months, to try and do whatever he or she can do to bale out this sinking ship.
I had to laugh at Tuesday's committeemen circus when 3rd Ward Ald. Dorothy Tillman, a Stroger supporter, complained,"The press don't speak for the community ... the press are dividing the community."
Is that a drumbeat I hear in the distance, alderman?

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