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Patronage still in play at county hospitals?

Monday, November 17, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

When the Cook County Board voted in February to put an independent board in charge of hospitals, one of the main reasons was to end political patronage hiring.

And while the new board, which started in June, hasn't had a lot of time to institute changes, two recent personnel moves may give an indication of whether it is living up to its charter.

Most recently, the system rebuffed an attempt to move the county board president's deposed budget director into the hospital system. Sources confirmed that administrators for county board President Todd H. Stroger attempted to move former budget director Jarese Wilson into a county hospital job. While hospital administrators indicated a willingness to look at her credentials, they declined to simply put her on the payroll with no questions asked, sources said.

That's a departure from past practice at the hospitals.

For instance, county Commissioner Joseph Mario Mareno's sister got a key administrative job at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, even though she had no correctional or detention center experience. Later, plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit effectively forced the takeover of the center from Stroger's administration, and Moreno's sister was fired. But she quickly landed a plum administration job in the hospital system despite having no health care experience. Budget documents still list her as being employed there.

Despite the Wilson rejection, another recent personnel move at the hospital shows those in the system with connections aren't necessarily out.

Hospital board members were surprised at a recent board meeting when interim CEO David Small introduced Deb Fortier to them as the CEO's new attorney. The appointment came despite the fact that the position didn't even have a job description yet, and a permanent CEO job search hasn't yet been concluded.

Fortier once served as counsel to county Recorder of Deeds Eugene "Gene" Moore but was laid off in 2007. She landed a job at the hospitals system as a project manager for patient support services, budget documents show.

Administrators there say she was on board before they arrived. "She already had a job (here)," said Warren Batts, chairman of the hospitals board.

After making a $400 campaign donation to Stroger on May 4 of this year, she secured the promotion to the CEO's legal adviser. Hospital administrators say the two events have nothing to do with one another, and Fortier's move was simply part of a systemwide review of all employees' qualifications to see if they are needed.

Fortier, said Batts, simply had qualifications that did not match her old job, but had a legal background, which was needed. "We badly needed a lawyer ... so she was given a chance to show she could do the job," Batts said. "If it doesn't work out, she's an at-will employee."

But Batts conceded board members were caught off guard by the announcement.

Batts said he was unaware of any rebuff of Wilson, but noted she had been very helpful to the system during the budget process this year.

Wilson wound up with a job in Cook County's Information Technology department.

Wilson could not be reached for comment; Fortier declined to comment.

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