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Cook County patronage beast will not die

Tuesday, May 05, 2009
SouthtownStar
by Phil Kadner

You can shoot it, outlaw it and drive a stake through its heart, but political patronage in Cook County will not die.

There may be no better example than the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education.

In 1991, after years of lobbying by newspapers and better-government groups, the state Legislature passed a law abolishing the office of Cook County regional school superintendent as of June 1994.

Richard Martwick, the old regional superintendent of schools, had spent millions of tax dollars hiring no-show, do-nothing employees. Martwick himself could never be found at work, either. So he lost his job and his office was eliminated.

But by 1995, Republicans in control of both branches of the General Assembly decided to resurrect the office to serve the suburbs, but not Chicago.

Back then, the Cook County suburbs voted Republican. And while Democrats had run patronage in the old regional superintendent's office out of Chicago, the idea was to create a new jobs program for the GOP in the suburbs.

When it came to actually funding the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education, however, the state lawmakers refused to act. As a result, the new office has never had enough manpower or money to do its job, although what that job is remains unclear to this day.

Charles Flowers is now the guy elected to run the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education.

Make a telephone call to him at the district, and you'll hear a tape-recorded message from Barbara Flowers, his executive assistant. Hit "zero" on your touch-tone phone for the operator at the regional office, and you'll get another message from Patricia Flowers.

"Are you related to the superintendent?" I asked Barbara Flowers when she later answered the phone.

"Do you want to speak to the superintendent or do you want a list of employees?" she replied.

I told her I wanted both things.

"As a newspaper reporter, you should know you have to file a Freedom of Information request for a list of employees," Barbara Flowers said.

Actually, I told her, I didn't have to file an FOI request. All any citizen "has to do" is ask for information about how his tax money is being spent and it should be provided.

Flowers hung up the phone.

Charles Flowers came into office in 2007 facing a budget deficit of more than $400,000 and vowing to root out corruption. He apparently thought the best way to do this was to put his two sisters and one of their sons on the payroll.

A year into the job, he approved a salary advance of $6,000 to his sister Barbara Flowers, the woman who demands that people file Freedom of Information requests to find out how their tax money is being spent.

Documents obtained by SouthtownStar reporter Duaa Eldeib also reveal that Charles Flowers approved a $9,000 salary advance for a friend, Arbdella Hayes-Patterson, who oversees the truancy program.

New administrators were hired by Flowers for salaries ranging between $75,000 and $100,000 - more than doubling in some cases what people in similar positions were previously paid. Flowers himself makes $103,000 a year.

In 2008, however, his office was so short of cash that he had to ask the Cook County Board for a $190,000 emergency loan.

Last month, Eldeib reported, the regional office couldn't make payroll and earlier in the year it failed to make its group health insurance payment.

Two of the office's primary functions are to certify public school teachers and run the fingerprints of public school employees as part of a security check.

But local school superintendents say Flowers' office is so slow that they've been using the state board of education to certify teachers.

As for the fingerprinting process, one school superintendent told me, "We run our own program for substitute teachers. They've (regional office) increased the price to run fingerprints so much that most of our teachers don't want to pay it."

He said he had heard the Suburban Cook County office was also running fingerprints for municipalities and private contractors, but he had no firsthand knowledge about that.

"All I know is that we charge $45 for a fingerprint check through the state police, and (Flowers' office was) charging $65 the last I heard," the superintendent said.

As for Flowers, like Martwick before him, he's rarely available to answer questions.

His staff failed to meet with Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman (R-Orland Park) when she started asking questions about that emergency loan last year.

If he had picked up the phone Monday, I would have asked him why he was paying his relatives if his agency couldn't even make its payroll.

But I know the answer to that one.

You can try to kill the patronage system in Cook County, but it will not die.

Phil Kadner can be reached at pkadner@southtownstar.com or (708) 633-6787.



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