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Ex-judge: Rein in Stroger's political appointees

Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

So, just what exactly is it that 500 political employees hired by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger do all day?

For two years, a court-appointed watchdog has been asking Stroger that question. For two years, she has not gotten an answer.

Cook County Compliance Administrator Julia Nowicki, a former Cook County judge herself, made public Tuesday in a resignation letter that, as part of her quest to root out patronage abuses, she asked Stroger's administration to provide a job description for each of the 500 so-called "Shakman exempt" political employees Stroger can hire.

"The (compliance administrator) expected this work to be completed two years ago. The delay in this regard is unfathomable," Nowicki told commissioners in the letter.

Laura Lechowicz Felicione, special counsel to Stroger, acknowledged in a letter to Nowicki that the process "has taken longer than expected," but said in an interview Tuesday the process is in the "final stages." And, she noted, with the splitting off of the county health bureau, the number of exempt positions under Stroger's control has shrunk from 500 to about 370.

Felicione noted that she provided Nowicki with a 12-page letter outlining several steps the county has taken to curb patronage in accordance with a court order known as the "Shakman decree." They include hiring a new Human Resources head, Joseph Sova, after a nationwide search, creating a new hiring process and Stroger passing both an executive order and an ordinance to ban patronage hiring.

All true, noted Nowicki in her letter, but not good enough. Stroger initially fought hiring an outside HR director, Nowicki wrote.

"This type of conduct sends a message that the Office of the president will only go down the path mandated by the (court order) unwillingly and at a slow pace," Nowicki said.

And as for the ordinance and executive order, "I have not observed ... any perception ... that the president is interested in proactive implementation of the two enactments," Nowicki wrote.

Nowicki also strongly suggested that, while Stroger indeed does have the legal right to hire 500 patronage employees, if those employees aren't qualified or don't do the work of those positions, they can still result in Shakman decree violations as Shakman-exempt employees have to do their own work plus their boss's work. In fact, several county employees were recently awarded cash settlements for such scenarios.

The abuses are so bad, Nowicki suggested, the board should institute its own oversight over those positions.

"You should insist on stringent minimum qualifications for these important and highly coveted jobs," Nowicki wrote. "The Board could create an oversight committee to review the credentials of the exempt employees. Further, this committee could review their work performance."

Felicione countered that exempt employees are, in fact, supervised by either the president or various department heads and are disciplined when deserved.

Nowicki told the Daily Herald that, as compliance administrator, she was limited strictly to Shakman decree-related matters, but felt with her departure she was free to elaborate on other matters.

While the compliance administrator is limited in its powers, she noted, the board is not, and she wanted to convey that.

For instance, while the president has prepared a new hiring plan which lays out how hires will take place in compliance with Shakman, it doesn't necessarily get to the spirit of reform now being clamored for statewide.

"It's just a hiring plan, not an overall 'how do we make this a better world' plan," Nowicki noted.

Her letter to commissioners was designed to emphasize "I think someone needs to put some pressure on the president's office to be just a little bit more proactive," she said.

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