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Steele off to good start, but faces big challenges

Friday, August 04, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

The brief reign of Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele has begun. Although she represents no clear break from the insular politics that have for many years characterized county government, she is saying the right things and making some sound moves, particularly by taking on one of the county's long-festering problems, the Juvenile Detention Center. She promised she would be open, accountable and transparent. That makes for a good start.

 Steele, a longtime County Board member picked by her colleagues to serve the last four months of the ailing John Stroger's term, doesn't have the luxury of coasting through December. The county is facing a looming $300 million budget deficit and tough choices need to be made immediately. Steele compared the county to a "great dinosaur" and said she'd begin the task of turning things around by instituting a hiring freeze -- wasn't there supposed to be one already? -- and warning department heads that cuts will be needed.

In a meeting with the Sun-Times editorial board Thursday, she said streamlining government is on the table -- a sensible idea that Stroger long resisted. She also proposed simple things like consolidating purchases and telling front-line health-care workers that, yes, they can ask patients if they have insurance instead of assuming that they don't, or, incredibly, not billing it when they do.

She picked J. W. Fairman to fix the juvenile center, where unsafe and unsanitary conditions persist despite a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Fairman appears a reasonable short-term choice but may not represent the best permanent solution. For one, he has been working at the center for four years with Jerry Robinson, the superintendent who resigned Monday. Many critics hoped that Steele, who baby-sat for Fairman when he was an infant, would have picked someone more independent. But it may have been difficult for Steele to attract an outsider given the fact that she's only going to be in charge for four months. Top candidates may resist knowing that a new person will be in charge in December. Fairman, who was the county's director of public safety and has a background in running prisons and jails, said Stroger, or the people around the president, prevented him from making changes at the center during the last four years.

For now, like the ACLU, we are willing to give him a chance. The first proof will be in whether he quickly replaces workers at the center who are resisting reform efforts. His desire to hire Carl Sanniti, an expert on juvenile reform who already is working on a plan to fix the center, is a good sign.

Steele doesn't have a lot of time to make a difference, but it's heartening that she is trying.

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