Cook County government will soon be able to hire and fire workers without external oversight of its employment practices, ending decades of federal oversight stemming from a 1969 lawsuit alleging political discrimination.
The county submitted court papers Friday asking that it be let out from federal oversight stemming from the decades-old Shakman decree, and a court-appointed administrator agreed that the county is in “substantial compliance” with longstanding prohibitions against patronage. County officials expect the move to be approved in federal court Oct. 31.
“We have worked diligently to foster a culture of professionalism and accountability and have left behind bad practices of the past,” Preckwinkle said in a statement.
Cook County Commissioner Timothy Schneider, who is also the state Republican chairman and is facing a tough campaign for re-election, said the “mistakes of improper management of hiring practices, and patronage, have cost county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in compliance oversight” and he hopes they’ve taken the proper steps to prevent them “from ever happening again.”
But Schneider also said he’s concerned that Preckwinkle’s interest in “eliminating any checks and balances at the county, and her position as Democratic County chairwoman, might offer future opportunities to return to past practices.”
Michael Shakman in 1969 filed the case that led to the accord after he lost an election while opposed by a political army loyal to then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, who also was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Patronage was essential to the original Cook County machine. It involved hiring, firing and promoting government workers based on their election-time efforts and, in the process, prevented many potential employees who didn’t do that work from getting government jobs.
Three years after Shakman filed the suit, Daley agreed to a court order banning the city from firing workers for failing to raise campaign money or get out the vote. That ruling grew to include other forms of politically motivated employment discrimination and more governments, including Cook County. Policymaking positions are exempt from the ban.
Patronage persisted, with additional restrictions added in 1994, and in 2005 plaintiffs alleged violations of the consent decrees and the county entered into a supplemental relief order that appointed a federal compliance administrator to make sure the county was following the rules.
A federal judge released City Hall from its decree in 2014.
Shakman on Friday said the “lesson” here is that it’s not good enough to get a court order banning wrong conduct that’s entrenched, as patronage was in Cook County. An outsider who’s accountable to the court, not the parties, needs to come in to help oversee the process.
“Unless you do that, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of solving the problem in a way that’s meaningful,” Shakman said.
Mary Robinson, Cook County’s compliance administrator, said in a court filing that “It is impossible to eliminate all opportunity for violations of policies and practices adopted to curtail unlawful political discrimination.
“Nevertheless, as required under the SRO, the county … adopted detailed and robust policies and enforcement mechanisms; acted in good faith to remedy instances of non-compliance; eradicated previous policies and practices of making employment decisions based on political factors; not engaged in material noncompliance with adopted plans and policies; and implemented procedures intended to effect long-term prevention of unlawful political discrimination,” Robinson said. “As a result, it is our opinion that continued court oversight and active monitoring by the CA is no longer necessary.”
When she took office, Preckwinkle said she “made clear that we needed to reform and reshape Cook County government and that included professionalizing the county’s employment practices in an accountable and transparent way.”
“We have worked hard to ensure that Cook County is hiring qualified candidates to provide the crucial services expected by those who live and work in Cook County,” she said.
Cook County Commissioner Sean Morrison, another Republican on the board who also is facing a tough re-election campaign, said the deal is good for taxpayers from a “financial standpoint” as the oversight was costly to comply with.
“It’s good to be out of it if we can keep our nose clean and the political control stays out of the hiring and the termination and the targeting,” Morrison said. “We’re only going to know that with time.”