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Hawaii Trip was Bound to Put Heat on County

Friday, June 10, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by Carol Marin

They don't call him Jerry "The Iceman" Butler for nothing. Long before he was elected to the Cook County Board, Commissioner Butler earned that nickname for his silky-smooth rhythm and blues voice. Butler, who still performs professionally, is known for his cool on stage.

As of Thursday, however, Butler had ignited an arguably small but very hot debate over whether he and other commissioners should be using taxpayer money to fund a trip next month to Hawaii for a meeting of the National Association of Counties.

This is what he told the Sun-Times' Steve Patterson on Wednesday: "I don't attend [NACo meetings] regularly, but it's a rare occurrence to have a meeting in Honolulu. I'll probably get a lot of information I may never use, but a lot of us will be having a good time that we'd probably never have it we weren't elected to county office."

Butler, who is bringing two of his staffers along at taxpayer expense, went on to tell Patterson, "I mean, let's be honest and frank about this. This is going to be a lot more pleasure than pain."

Hallelujah! In behalf of all us who are fed up with politicians spinning some phony baloney about how they guard every penny of our money as if it was their own, I say thank you, Iceman, for telling it like it is.

By phone Thursday I asked Butler if his candor had generated heat from his colleagues.

"No," he laughed in his smoky baritone, "I haven't discussed it with them, and none of them have discussed it with me."

Well, I have. And I've gotten an earful on both sides of this matter.

"I don't know how Commissioner Butler plans to spend his time, but I'm going to work," Commissioner Bobbie Steele told me. "I chair one of the NACo committees, I have 15 members from all over the country on my committee, and we are not doing this for pleasure."

Commissioner Earlean Collins seconds the motion, saying such national meetings of elected officials allow for critical discussions of serious issues like developing "plans to divert mentally ill people to proper county services rather than send them to county jails."

I am sure that when the approximately 4,000 members of the National Association of Counties get together, there are a lot of meaty topics that they can discuss. At issue, however, is whether those elected officials need to go all the way to Hawaii to have that discussion and whether they should expect us taxpayers to pay for it.

Talk to Commissioner Carl Hansen about that and you'd think they were being herded off to Hotel Rwanda instead of some nice resort hotel in Hawaii. "What the hell," said Hansen, "do you think Hawaii is fun in the summer?"

Actually, that thought had occurred to me.

The biggest defender of this junket, er, trip is Cook County Board President John Stroger, who points out that one of the key reasons he and five of his staff members are headed to Hawaii is to promote that very same convention coming to Chicago next year. The estimated benefit, he says, is at least $5 million in tourism dollars to Chicago.

"This is government business," Stroger told me. "And every member of the County Board voted to approve it."

Yes, they did. In September, the board unanimously approved a resolution endorsing Stroger's attempts to bring the 2006 NACo convention to Chicago, and the following month the board unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding to lay out the framework of that convention. But nowhere that I can see was there ever a listing of how many county commissioners and staff were required to do that work, nor an explanation of why they needed to go all the way to Hawaii to promote tourism in Chicago.

"Why not outsource the job?" asked Commissioner Forrest Claypool. "Taxpayers are being taken for a ride on this."

Claypool says he isn't going to Hawaii. Neither are Commissioners Tony Peraica, Elizabeth Doody Gorman, Michael Quigley, Larry Suffredin, Mario Moreno, Gregg Goslin, Peter Silvestri or John Daley. If you were a cynic, you might argue that at least three of them are in the running to unseat Stroger as president in 2006 and using the Hawaii trip as political ammunition.

I don't think so. And even if it's true, I don't care.

In politics there is both substance and symbolism. And each matters.

Cook County government for too long has been a sleepy, sloppy, rubber stamp of wasteful programs, patronage, and fraud perpetrated against the taxpaying public.

In the coming 2006 fiscal year, the county faces a $200 million deficit, potential layoffs, cutbacks, and/or new taxes. Next year's budget will require sacrifices from us all.

Any county official who thinks it makes sense to head for Hawaii under these circumstances is politically tone deaf. Come next election, they might be forced to face the music.

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