Long way to go.
Monday, June 04, 2007
by STEVE PATTERSON
Six months ago today, Todd Stroger was sworn in as Cook County Board president.
And even he has admitted he had no idea of the $3 billion mess he was getting himself into.
While some expected a learning curve and rocky moments, perhaps no one could have foreseen the
turbulence Stroger has experienced.
He does not come with the political muscle held by his father, longtime County Board President John
Stroger, and as such he has not commanded immediate respect from the federal, state and county officials he must work with.
And while few stood up to John Stroger, many are standing up to his son.
In public appearances, Stroger has been the only Democrat drowned in a rain of boos, while his
administration has repeatedly stumbled in responding to controversies. As a result, few have been
willing to stand by him publicly with unwavering support, as they did with his father.
Many gave Stroger a chance initially, but questionable moves have led them to back away.
And many continue to question just how involved Stroger is in running things, as a few powerful insiders
appear to make most decisions and wield the most power.
It has led to a frustrating and maddening six months, not only for Stroger but also for the 17 County
Board members who must approve most of his moves.
And while Stroger will argue there have been steps forward, there have been far too many steps back.
To be fair, many of the problems are inherited. And to Stroger's credit, he has done nothing to stop the
release of records showing embarrassing -- and sometimes criminal -- behavior in county government.
Auditors are finally producing records laying out blatant mismanagement and a lack of oversight that
ruled county government under his father's watch.
Yet many continue to wait for a major upheaval or, as he campaigned on, a plan to "bring an end to
business as usual."
Last week, he said he was surprised at the level of incompetence among top county officials,
and yet he has made few major changes among the hundreds of jobs he appoints --
the same people appointed by his father who are responsible for many of the messes.
Still, those same appointees bring institutional knowledge that Stroger must lean on. Those close to him
say he also continues to rely on the advice of many of those who led his father's government into the
ruin he inherited.
But Stroger promises big changes are imminent.
"We're dragging the old jalopy known as Cook County into the repair shop for a 21st century makeover,"
he said at a recent speech.
The foundation for that makeover came when he got the board to approve a $3 billion budget.
It made sweeping cuts Stroger wanted and didn't raise taxes.
But the political fallout from that budget has been immense. Commissioners say he violated their trust
when he began spending money in ways other than what they approved.
And many of the unions who helped elect him say he's hurting them with layoffs.
That has done nothing to damper talk that Stroger could be a one-term president.
But while that anger is substantial now, Stroger is banking on short memories,
as he's got 3½ years to make up with those who are upset. There is also an emerging --
if faulty -- strategy to seek sympathy from minority communities by making Stroger a martyr,
victimized by the mainstream media.
Yet while nurses and other union officials sit home with layoff notices, Stroger continues to fill
high-paying management jobs, further building ire from that crowd that will be tough to counter, no
matter how far down the road.
But Stroger is trying to do that by focusing on changes he has already made and those he's planning.
There's the blue-ribbon committee formed to take an outsider's look at hospital operations --
one formed only after Stroger was scolded by Washington, D.C., leadership to clean it up or risk losing federal funds.
And Stroger is touting improvements at the long-neglected Juvenile Temporary Detention Center,
which he called "a top priority of mine," though outside monitors say things have not improved and, in some
cases, grown worse.
And while Stroger promised not to raise property taxes to balance the 2007 budget, he didn't make that
promise beyond and has already started talking about that possibility in 2008.
But also during the campaign, he promised to eliminate waste, increase funds for jail-diversion programs
and improve patient access to medical care. He also vowed to be a consensus builder.
In order to begin unraveling the $3 billion mess that is county government, developing trust and
building a consensus with other officials might be his most necessary yet daunting task.