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Sheriff, Shakman to talk about hiring

Friday, August 31, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said he has initiated talks with lawyer Michael Shakman to get out from under the long-standing court decree meant to keep politics out of most personnel decisions.

In doing so, Dart will also likely seek to increase the number of political employees -- those he is allowed to appoint and dismiss directly -- he is permitted to put on his staff since the current limit of 130 was established more than two decades ago when the sheriff's office was much smaller.

"We just figured, 'Let's get this thing behind everybody,'" Dart said Thursday in a taping of "At Issue," which airs at 9:30 a.m. Sunday on WBBM-AM. "I have no desire to make this office into anything other than the best sheriff's office in the country, and to do that our hiring policies are going to look for the best people."
Shakman, who started filing lawsuits to combat patronage in local government agencies nearly four decades ago, confirmed talks are under way, but he declined to elaborate.

Both the City of Chicago and Cook County government are in the process of settling with Shakman, although the city recently hit a snag over its proposed hiring plan.

The city and the county sought agreements with Shakman after federal prosecutors launched criminal probes of their hiring operations. A federal jury last year convicted Mayor Richard Daley's former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, and three other aides in a hiring scheme that circumvented the Shakman court decrees.

The sheriff's office has not been implicated in any of those investigations. But Dart said he sought talks with Shakman in an effort to eliminate any "gray areas" and make certain all parties were clear which jobs could be filled by political appointees.

The current agreement with Shakman was reached in 1986 when the office had fewer than 5,000 employees. It now has 6,900 and, given that growth, "an expansion [of political appointees] is something that we're in discussions about," said Bill Cunningham, Dart's chief of staff.

Dart, who served as chief of staff to former Sheriff Michael Sheahan before being elected, said he was not aware of problems of politics with hiring in the office.

"But this has been an issue that has haunted so many people, and why dance around things?" Dart said. "We've got such an ambitious agenda of things we want to do ... so it was like, 'Let's get this done with and something we can all agree to,' and that's what we're in the process of now."

On another topic, Dart said it is unlikely he will run for Cook County state's attorney next year to replace Richard Devine, who plans to retire. Dart's name has been mentioned as a potential contender for the job, but he does not intend to seek the Cook County Democratic Party's endorsement when leaders meet next week to slate a candidate.

"I don't see the scenario where I would be running for that position," said Dart, a former assistant state's attorney. "And I hate not just giving you an outright 'no,' but it's right about there."

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