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Stroger must break with the past and fire Nichols now

Sunday, November 26, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
Editorial

Todd Stroger must immediately fire Gerald Nichols, his father's former patronage chief who is still drawing a six-figure salary for doing next to nothing. The newly elected County Board president must distance himself from the do-nothing insiders of his father's era. Asking for Nichols' resignation but insisting that he will continue to be an adviser is far short of what's needed to persuade voters that Stroger won't run county government as a bloated haven of patronage and cronyism that wastes the taxpayers' dollars. Stroger needs to demonstrate in the strongest way possible that he understands he needs to break with the past and that he is committed to doing so.
After his father, John Stroger, suffered a stroke in March, Todd Stroger controversially replaced him as the Democratic nominee on the Nov. 7 ballot. During his campaign, he portrayed himself as an agent of change who would reform the patronage-heavy county government. The first thing he said he would do would be to fire Nichols. Then post-election, Stroger backed off that pledge. While Stroger now says he will ask for Nichols' resignation effective Dec. 31 -- he doesn't want to fire anyone during the holiday season -- he says Nichols can -- get this -- provide him with insight that no one else can. "He obviously knows everybody in the county, I don't care what people say," Stroger said. The only way that makes any sense is if Nichols is going to identify all the patronage workers he put in place so Stroger can then fire them. Somehow we doubt that's what he meant. Stroger also said he hadn't seen anything about Nichols' being investigated by the feds even though the Sun-Times has reported that six times in the last two months.
There have been two other troubling developments involving county government. The first is the revelation in the Sun-Times last week that Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno allegedly kept a "clout list" that he used to track county jobs and promotions for politically connected applicants. Moreno denies he knew about the list, but his former assistant provided recorded voice-mail messages that appear to back up the allegations -- including one that apparently refers to working with Nichols to help people land jobs. The FBI listened to the messages after the Sun-Times reported on them.
The second development is the breakdown in the relationship between the court-appointed monitor and the staff at the Cook County juvenile detention center, which has long been criticized for political hiring and for its poor treatment of its residents. Monitor Brenda Welch complained that staffers were interfering with her work and curbing her progress.
The Moreno allegations and the juvenile center problems are symptoms of a dysfunctional county government. With his insistence on clinging to Nichols, Stroger raises questions about how he will he take on the county's bigger problems.
Finally, a word about caretaker president Bobbie Steele. She has performed her interim job admirably, bringing intelligence and common sense to tackling the county's problems. No one can blame her for deciding to retire when she gets the best pension. But she will tarnish the fine work she has done if she goes through with her stated intention to get her son appointed to the County Board to replace her. Bequeathing government positions to children is bad old-style politics and she shouldn't do it.


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