Cook County sues itself in budget war.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz
(Crain’s) — In a bizarre twist to Cook County’s budget woes, the county’s public defender on Tuesday announced that he is suing County Board President Todd Stroger in a bid to get needed funding for the office.
A suit filed by Public Defender Edwin Burnette contends that the office is unable to fulfill its constitutional task to represent the indigent because of layoffs, hiring freezes and other steps ordered by Mr. Stroger and the board. It asks a third unit of county government — a circuit court — to order the reinstatement and reimbursement of all office personnel, and to mandate other actions to ensure “the independence and autonomy of the office.”
An attorney for Mr. Stroger and the co-defendants in the case, presidential chief of staff Lance Tyson and comptroller Joseph Fratto, termed the lawsuit "ridiculous."
Burt Odelson said if the public defender doesn't like his budget, "he should have come to the board like the state's attorney did and lobby" for more money.
"You don't file lawsuits to ask for more appropriations," Mr. Odelson said. "That's not the way our democracy is based."
Last year, when Mr. Stroger unveiled proposed double-digit spending cuts throughout county government, Mr. Burnette said his office would be able to comply. Mr. Burnette was appointed public defender by Mr. Stroger’s father, John Stroger, who left office two years ago after suffering a stroke.
But Mr. Burnette then “did not recognize the full consequences of Mr. Stroger’s game plan on his office,” his attorney, William Hooks, said at a press conference announcing the suit.
The suit contends that a staff of about 435 assistant public defenders is handling 126,474 felony cases for approximately 112,000 poor people accused of crimes, giving it a workload 60% above national standards. While the office budget has been cut 26% in the past three years, Mr. Stroger has hired or promoted friends and political supporters for jobs paying $200,000 or more, Mr. Hooks said.
Mr. Hooks said the office must be kept separate from normal budget give-and-take because it has a unique, specified role that cannot legally be shortchanged.
Mr. Burnette did not attend the press conference, but Mr. Hooks was accompanied by the head of the union local that represents most office workers and which joined in the suit.
Kulmeet Galhotra, president of AFSCME Local 3315, said the office “has not hired a new attorney since June, 2006.” While about a dozen laid-off lawyers were recalled to work, attrition has cut the number of assistant public defenders from 465 at the beginning of last year to 430 to 440 now, Mr. Galhotra said.
Mr. Burnette said the court has named him a special Cook County state’s attorney in the case. That means his fees will be paid by the public until the case is resolved.