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Cook County votes to cut pay for some political appointees

Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

Cook County commissioners on Wednesday voted to end full-time pay and benefits for political appointees on a pair of panels, a change backed by County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Salaries, medical benefits and pension contributions for members of the Zoning Board of Appeals and the Employee Appeals Board will end June 1. Instead, members of the two clout-heavy boards will be paid $500 for each meeting they attend, with annual pay limited to $12,000 plus expenses. Appointees now are paid about $35,000 a year and get benefits valued at more than $20,000.

The changes will save the county about $300,000 a year at a time when some taxpayers are having trouble finding work, much less a part-time job with full-time pay and benefits, said Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago.

Such perks are from a bygone era, Gainer added. “They existed at the state. They existed at the city. Most of the positions we have now are unpaid,” she said.

Preckwinkle noted that she appoints people to “50 boards and commissions, and the very vast majority of people who serve do so without pay. . . . They are entirely volunteers.”

The two measures got the support of 12 of the 17 commissioners. An attempt by Commissioners Deborah Sims, D-Chicago, and Joan Murphy, D-Crestwood, to hold off on the votes failed, as did an effort to allow current members to keep collecting their salaries.

“This is a lot of debate about how long to extend a really nice perk for a couple politically connected people,” said Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago. “I know the folks that are on here. They are good guys. They are friends. (But) this is a vestige of everything that’s gotten the public upset with government.”

Gainer and Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, first proposed cutting the perks exactly one year ago. The changes gained traction in the wake of a Tribune story on Employee Appeals Board member John Bills, a longtime campaign worker for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. The story detailed an alleged ethics violation by Bills in his former role as manager of the city of Chicago’s red light camera program.

Many of the members of the two boards, which each have five members when fully staffed, have political connections. All but one were appointed by former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

Among the appointees are Thornton Township Democratic Committeeman Frank Zuccarelli; former Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority CEO Juan Ochoa; retired U.S. Rep. Morgan Murphy Jr.; former Circuit Court Judge Anthony Young; and attorney Kevin Freeman, the son of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman.

The County Board put off action, however, on a similar change targeting the Sheriff’s Merit Board, whose members help determine who gets hired, promoted and disciplined. That measure was first introduced two weeks ago, and Sheriff Tom Dart wanted more time to consider it and possibly seek related changes to state law, officials said.

Members of that board are paid $26,000 a year and are eligible for health and pension benefits. They include Lance Tyson, a onetime Stroger chief of staff who lost an independent bid for the Illinois House last week to indicted former Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith.


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