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Forest Preserve adds patronage hires

Monday, October 04, 2004
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON

Over the last 22 months, hundreds of workers who cleaned Cook County forest preserves were laid off because of budget cuts and management restructuring.

So when the Cook County Forest Preserve District eliminated its multimillion-dollar debt last month and announced it would begin filling vacant positions, some expected the priority would be on maintenance -- especially given the shabby appearance of some groves and woods.

Instead, the agency has been quick to make political patronage hires in higher-paying management positions, records show. There have been no recent hires in the maintenance arena, the records indicate.

Sam Simone, who runs the Palos Township Regular Democratic Organization, started last week as a $68,820-a-year assistant to district Supt. Steve Bylina. He'll work with 38th Ward Democratic Committeeman P.J. Cullerton, a $90,000-a-year assistant to Bylina.

Two weeks ago, Jimmie Barreto was promoted to assistant division superintendent, making $40,297 a year. A 17-year district employee, he's also a 26th Ward Democratic precinct captain, loyal to county Commissioner Roberto Maldonado.

Politically driven hiring



It's that politically driven hiring process that has led the district into financial turmoil, critics say, taking aim at Cook County Board President John Stroger, who has the most power over district decisions.

"This administration will go to any lengths to protect and expand their political class at the Forest Preserve District," said county Commissioner Forrest Claypool. "They will cut maintenance workers who clean and protect the preserves and raise property taxes to protect their bloated bureaucracy."

But district officials say they have cut the fat out of their budget. "We had one of our best operational years with our current staffing levels," Forest Preserve spokesman Steve Mayberry said. "It's a real testament to what we've done."

Teamsters Local 726, which represents maintenance workers, sees things differently, saying more focus should be on laborers, a shrinking group that has been without a contract since December 2002.

"We're extremely concerned about the size of the work force because we don't really know how the work can possibly get done," said Local 726 attorney Jim Green.

Records show the district spent $25.6 million on recreation and general maintenance in 2001. Last year, it spent $13.3 million.

While the district eliminated laborers from its budget, some mid-level managers now being hired will do more field work, Mayberry said.

 


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