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Stroger and critics spar over proposal

Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President John Stroger accused some of his critics on the board of unfairly targeting minority businesses after they introduced a proposal Tuesday that would ban broker arrangements in county contracts.

"Some of this thing seems racist to me," said Stroger, who is black, in reference to the measure sponsored by two white county commissioners. The remark set the tone for a long, contentious meeting punctuated by sharp exchanges between Stroger and adversarial county commissioners, some of whom are weighing a run for board president next year.

The proposal, which was sent to committee, was inspired by Faustech Industries, a now-defunct minority-owned company that won millions in county contracts. The company was removed in April from Chicago's set-aside program, which doesn't allow brokers.

Commissioners Larry Suffredin and Forrest Claypool said their amendment is not racially motivated. Rather, they said it is designed to help legitimate minority- and women-owned businesses.

"I think President Stroger is misconstruing the amendment. It's designed to protect the integrity of the minority set-aside program," Claypool said.

"Who's fighting for minority businesses here? Us or him?" Claypool added. "It seems like he would protect those who abuse the system at the expense of real minority businesses."

The county ordinance would define a broker as an entity that gets supplies from a third party rather than its own inventory and does not provide any "substantial service" beyond acting as a conduit to the county.

After the meeting, Stroger said contracting with brokers was never an issue until minority- and women-owned businesses got involved.

Suffredin said Stroger is using race as a cover because of the recent news about administrative problems coming out of two offices under his control.

"It's the knee-jerk response," Suffredin said. "He's trying to cover himself for the embarrassment he should have for the mismanagement in those two offices."

Suffredin was referring to Contract Compliance, which he and others have criticized for poor oversight of the minority contracting program, and the President's Office of Employment Training, where an official has been suspended after being accused of misappropriating money.

Tuesday was not the first time Stroger has raised the issue of race in the board room, but his comments were among his most direct references during a nearly five-hour meeting notable for its acrimony.

In response to Stroger's reference to the broker amendment, Commissioner Tony Peraica said it was "unfortunate" that "when there are differences between the administration and the board, the race card is brought out."

Stroger replied: "There are moves that have been made in here that have racial overtones. There's no question about it. You know it, and if you don't know it, I'm telling you."

Asked after the meeting what he meant by "moves," Stroger said: "Disrespect to the president of the County Board."

"Do you realize that when Mr. Claypool came to the board and I repeatedly asked him to come down and sit down and talk with me ... he never came?"

Asked if he thought the slight was racially motivated, Stroger said, "It was disrespectful. And I know he never would have done that to [Mayor] Daley."

Claypool, a former chief of staff to Daley, was elected to the board in 2002. Claypool said Stroger has the story backward.

"The truth is the absolute opposite," Claypool said. "I tried to set up meetings when I got on the board, and he refused to meet with me."

Claypool is weighing a possible run against Stroger in next year's Democratic primary. Peraica, a Republican, has already announced his candidacy for board president.

On several occasions, Stroger cut them off or talked over them when the commissioners tried to raise points counter to his.

"It's ironic when he talks about respect, when he doesn't even respect the individual members of the board's right to speak," Claypool said.

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