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Stroger, federal hiring watchdog spar over Cook County patronage

Sunday, May 17, 2009
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said today that politics plays no role in his administration’s hiring practices as a federal court monitor told commissioners about her report that concluded some of Stroger’s workers are undermining or defying efforts to prevent illegal patronage hiring.

“I’ll tell you, we don’t use clout in our (hiring) system,” Stroger told hiring monitor Mary Robinson during her presentation to the County Board.

The report, released Monday, said Stroger and the board have adopted protections against illegal patronage hiring, then detailed allegations that the system is still being subverted for political reasons by decision makers who work for Stroger.

“While some county policy makers and their agents are busy drafting and adopting and implementing appropriate policies, others are busy evading and frustrating and defying policies,” the report stated.

During Wednesday’s discussion, Stroger asked if all of the allegations of illegal patronage relate to a time before he was in office.

“No,” Robinson said. She added that her job is not to prove such allegations but rather to work toward eliminating the hiring, firing, promotion and transfer of most workers based on political considerations.

“I will tell you your systems are able to be manipulated, and that’s my concern, to try go get that out of there,” she told Stroger. “I don’t know who is clouted.”

Some of the exchanges between Stroger and Robinson served as political theater.

Robinson suggested that political hires under Human Resources Chief Joseph Sova are undermining efforts to rid the system of patronage. Stroger said Robinson never brought those concerns to him.

“I don’t want to get into this,” Robinson responded, “but I told your lawyer months ago.”

Replied Stroger: “There’s nothing like talking to me.”

Robinson said she would do that.

Robinson also said decision makers working for Sova should not be “exempt” employees, a category of workers who can legally be hired or promoted for political reasons because they help the elected official implement his or her policies.

The independent board running the county’s public health system, with about 7,000 jobs, voluntarily gave up the right to hire even a single employee for political reasons, Robinson said. “It’s making huge difference, and it’s getting them some really good applicants,” she added.

Meanwhile, Clifford Meacham, the federal court monitor for the Sheriff’s Department, said Sheriff Tom Dart is working to adequately protect that department from illegal patronage hiring.

“I am satisfied we are moving progressively,” Meacham said. “I am not satisfied we are where I want to be, and I think where the sheriff ultimately wants to be.”

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