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When is a freeze not really a freeze?

Thursday, October 19, 2006
Daily Southtown

THE ISSUE: Two months after instituting yet another hiring freeze, records show Cook County has made new hires, many of them for non-essential jobs.

WE SAY: These so-called "hiring freezes" are deceptive because of the number of exceptions government leaders build in to justify the hires. Taxpayers shouldn't be duped into believing that no new hiring is going on.

There are hiring freezes and then there are Cook County hiring freezes. Most hiring freezes mean hiring has come to a halt. In Cook County, it means hiring has come to a halt, unless ...

And then what follows are the justifications for violating the spirit of the hiring freeze.

It's a win-win situation for the politicians. At election time, they can talk about how they instituted a hiring freeze and say no more. When friends come looking for jobs, they can find exceptions to the freeze.

Former County Board President John Stroger announced a hiring freeze in 2003. Several warm fronts moved in over Cook County in the next few years, however, snapping the freeze and allowing 3,000 people to get county jobs. Stroger's "freeze" did not apply to jobs in public safety or public health departments, which account for 64 percent of the county budget.

Stroger suffered a stroke earlier this year, and Commissioner Bobbie Steele became interim board president Aug. 1. She too announced a "freeze" but also had the same exceptions as Stroger, along with exceptions for jobs funded by grants and "positions that may be necessary to complete the orderly transition of government."

Supposedly to put some teeth into her freeze and with the county facing a $500-million budget deficit, Steele said all new hires needed the approval of her chief of staff, the prospective employee's department head and the personnel and budget offices.

The results are in on the early days of Steele's hiring freeze, and they show that 297 new employees were hired by the county in August and September. That added $11.4 million to the payroll (though some new hires have already left). According to a report Tuesday by Daily Southtown staff writer Jonathan Lipman, 83 of the new positions have little or nothing to do with public health or public safety.

So what about the hiring freeze? Commissioner Joan Murphy, a Democrat from Crestwood, said Steele can't be blamed for all the new hires because many of them were for offices run by other elected county officials. Steele's freeze only applies to Steele's office, it appears.

So there really isn't a freeze countywide.

Also coming to Steele's defense is Forrest Claypool, who said the new hires, when compared to Stroger's, aren't "something I'm going to get worked up about." Claypool apparently expended all the energy he had to complain about such things when he ran against -- and lost to -- Stroger in the Democratic primary.

But Commissioner John Daley, the board's finance chairman who hails from a family synonymous with government hirings, called for greater scrutiny within the county regarding new hires. He said the county board needs to hold officials more responsible for the hirings. That sounds good, but when we look up and down the dais in the county board room, we're not quite so sure we can trust many of the commissioners to make such impartial judgments.

On top of all this, federal investigators have taken an interest in county hiring practices. Hiring records were recently seized by federal agents, though no charges have been made yet.

County voters will elect a new board president in less than three weeks. Both candidates -- Chicago Ald. Todd Stroger (John Stroger's son) and Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica -- vow they'll look at the number of employees on the county payroll and act accordingly. We'll weigh in with our preference in that race in a couple of days. But whoever wins shouldn't insult the intelligence of the voters by declaring hiring "freezes" and then finding exceptions or excuses -- especially when the budget deficit is reaching astronomical proportions.

Same goes for all public officials across the board. We're all for the elimination of bloated government payrolls. There are ways to achieve those goals that may not garner the headlines that the words "hiring freeze" do -- such as attrition, consolidation or dismissal for poor performance. But in the end, those methods are more effective than freezes that aren't really freezes.

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