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Hiring your folks, Joe, is never good

Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

It’s time for Cook County assessor Joseph Berrios to do the right thing: fire his son and sister.

Berrios won’t, but should, acknowledge that a public servant should not engage in such blatant nepotism. And it really shouldn’t come down to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle having to step in to resolve the problem — before other elected county officials and top managers also throw ethics to the wind and start doing things the Berrios way.

After winning the November 2010 election, Berrios hired his son, Joseph “Joey” Berrios, as a residential analyst. paying him $48,000 a year, and he hired his sister, Carmen Berrios, as director of taxpayer services, paying her $86,000. The newly elected Preckwinkle called Berrios’ habit of hiring family “inappropriate,” which was good.

But Preckwinkle, who ran and won as a reformer, has not again publicly addressed the issue. She’s moved on.

Earlier this month, the County County Ethics Board ruled that Berrios should fire his relatives because he’s in violation of a local anti-nepotisim ordinance by keeping them on. And the board fined him $10,000.

Berrios countered that the ethics ordinance applies to the board president and commissioners, but not to other elected leaders.

I would argue that an elected official should be first in line to embrace and follow any ethics rule.

Prohibitions against nepotism exist for good reasons. Hiring family is generally a bad business practice. How does a boss, for example, fire his own daughter, especially if she’s so incompetent he knows she’ll never land half as decent a job elsewhere? How does he set her salary? How can anybody feel confident it’s a fair and deserved salary? And will anybody ever believe she was the best qualified candidate for the job? Chances are, she was not.

The County Board’s ethics report has this to say about nepotisim: “Rather than promote an open and transparent governmental hiring process, this conduct promotes the opposite, a closed and opaque process.”

Berrios runs the assessor’s office, one of utmost importance to the people of Cook County because it sets property values, which are the basis for the size of our tax bills. We’d all like to believe, every time we pay that bill, that everything — beginning with the operations of the assessor’s office — is on the up and up.

Berrios’ defense when his fondness for nepotism was raised during the last election is that he actually holds his employees who are relatives to a higher standard, and that they have earned his trust.

Now he wants us to trust him.

As I recall, many Latino elected officials and others rushed to support Berrios when he came under fire. They praised him for making the Democratic Party more open to women and minorities.

And if that isn’t progressive enough, he sure has opened Cook County government to his relatives.

Berrios probably knows the saying in Spanish that goes: “El buen juez por su casa empieza,” which translates as “the good judge begins in his own house.”

Joe, do the right thing.

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