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No more free meals for county beast

Sunday, December 14, 2003
Special to

It's not too late for Cook County Board President John Stroger to recognize the shifting sands in which he finds himself precariously standing.

Stroger and some of his lock-step allies on the county board could easily transform the county into a 21st century unit government that values service over patronage. But they would have to mightily change the way they do business; change the way they view their customers, the taxpayers; change the way they treat their critics.

Stroger has an opportunity — if he grasps it — to truly make history. He can be the man who ends old-style tax-and-spend politics at the county, the structure he inherited from his predecessors and that he's essentially kept in place since he took the county's helm almost a decade ago.

Stroger suffered an immense political setback last week when the county board was poised to reject his 2004 budget that included a sales tax increase and new leasing tax.

Make no mistake: The fact that a rump group of three low-seniority Democrats and five seemingly cloutless suburban Republicans could successfully take on the powerful Democratic establishment — in the form of Stroger — sway the critical vote (that of a Democratic commissioner from Chicago, no less) and say "no," is stunning.

"For the first time, there is democracy on this board, and that's healthy," said county Commissioner Forrest Claypool, D-Chicago, a leader among the mavericks.

We agree that it is healthy, and we also hope that Stroger gets this simple message: Change your ways.

And why not? There's nothing preventing Cook County government from emulating what has already occurred at the Chicago Park District, the county treasurer's office and, steadily over the past decade, the Chicago Public Schools. All these bureaucracies were lumbering dinosaurs, payrolls laden with big-buck patronage hires who had too much time on their hands and too little interest in serving the taxpaying public.

Regrettably, Stroger to date has preferred to defend the status quo and lash back at his critics on the board and in the media. But Stroger has not survived decades in Cook County Democratic politics and ascended to his lofty governmental perch by being deaf, dumb or blind. On the contrary, Stroger is a savvy, sensible politician who counts many more friends than enemies. On a personal level, he is both convivial and convincing. These qualities would serve him well in constructively engaging his board critics — if he so chooses.

Reports last week of unacceptable supervisor-worker ratios at certain Forest Preserve District of Cook County facilities, of a 92-year-old county "administrator" who rarely shows up to work, of a one-time county commissioner who now does little but stand near Stroger at meetings and laugh at his jokes (all for $80,000-plus a year) only fuel the obvious conclusion that county government needs to reinvent itself.

Stroger made a start last summer when he named Steve Bylina to head the forest preserves — but only after being pressed to make a long-needed change by some of the same commissioners who now have blocked his budget.

Perhaps as a vote of confidence in Bylina, several commissioners who were ready to sink the county budget Tuesday on Wednesday gave Stroger the votes to approve the forest preserve budget.

As we urged several months ago in this space, Bylina must be given the independence to do his job and implement some of his promising plans for better servicing the county's tarnished jewel — even if it means getting rid of or reassigning patronage employees.

Meanwhile, Stroger should make similar tough decisions and cut loose some of his longtime buddies or political allies or hangers-on who give no value to the county's ultimate charge: serving the public. The maverick commissioners should stick to their guns; at the same time, Commissioners Deborah Sims, D-Chicago; and Joan Patricia Murphy, D-Crestwood, should take a long look at who they are really serving by sticking with Stroger on tax-and-spend matters. We'll certainly be pleased to remind their south suburban constituents of that responsibility come next election.

Increasing taxes as proposed is bad business and, Stroger should now realize, bad politics. The spotlight now is on the county board president. He can keep trying to feed the beast, or he can tame it.

Make no mistake: The fact that a rump group of three low-seniority Democrats and five seemingly cloutless suburban Republicans could successfully take on the powerful Democratic establishment ... and say "no," is stunning.

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