Cook County’s employee vaccination mandate has ripped open a new front in the internal war at the county’s Board of Review, heightening the chaos at the agency as it stands at the cusp of a crushing wave of appeals work.
During a special public meeting of the three-member Board of Review held Monday at the request of Comm. Tammy Wendt (D-1), Wendt decried as “unconstitutional” a countywide requirement for employees to report their vaccinations statuses. The freshman commissioner’s resistance spurred accusations from her colleagues and rivals Comm. Michael Cabonargi (D-2) and Comm. Larry Rogers (D-3) that she was throwing a wrench into the board’s potential return to in-person work as its work accelerates in the coming months.
County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in August gave workers under her authority until Oct. 15 to either be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or request a “reasonable accommodation” and submit to twice-weekly testing. She encouraged separately elected county offices, including the Board of Review, to follow suit. It did so in early December, codifying its own mandate coupled with a survey asking employees to report their vaccination status by Dec. 15. The policy was approved in a 2-1 vote, over Wendt’s objection.
Board of Review Chief Deputy Commissioner William O’Shields reported in a presentation Monday that all employees of the agency had reported their statuses — with the exception of Wendt’s staff, of whom just 55 percent had answered.
Pressed by her colleagues on the low response rate of her team, Wendt said she would not direct anyone to follow the county vaccination rules until after the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling in a pending case on employee vaccination requirements.
“No policy can be passed in good conscience if I think it’s unconstitutional,” Wendt said. “I’m not going to tell my staff, ‘You need to disclose your private information to me or you’re going to be fired.’"
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling last month upholding a federal vaccination mandate for large businesses around the country. But the question is due for a showdown in the Supreme Court, with oral arguments set to begin on Friday.
Wendt said she was “concerned about [medical privacy laws] and the dissemination of vaccine status through regular email to unauthorized individuals…all our senior staff has access to this private information, and I think that’s a problem.” She also downplayed the effectiveness of vaccines, saying it’s “common knowledge” that vaccinated people can contract COVID-19.
Chicago Department of Public Health Comm. Allison Arwady said during an unrelated news conference on Tuesday that approximately 90 percent of COVID patients currently in Chicago’s hospitals are unvaccinated.
Rank-and-file Chicago Police officers also cited privacy concerns when they spent months last year resisting a city mandate for employees to report their vaccination status. The Fraternal Order of Police remains locked in arbitration with the city over the issue, but a separate labor referee ruled last month that Chicago firefighters and other city employees must abide by the Chicago mandate.
The city’s Department of Human Resources reported on Monday that nearly 96 percent of police department staff had submitted their vaccination status, of whom about 71 percent have been immunized.
Related: Lightfoot swats down City Council rebellion on vaccination mandate: ‘This is…ultimately about control’
Rogers hit back at Wendt on Monday, saying the office “cannot plan a return to work effectively without determining the vaccination status of all our employees.”
“This is about us knowing who is and is not vaccinated, for the safety of those individuals as well as for the safety of other staff at the board,” Rogers said. “That’s not something you want us to know?”
Wendt countered that the Board of Review has been operating at full capacity since it went remote in 2020, saying there’s “no need to return to the office” while the pandemic remains rampant.
In October, then-Board of Review Secretary Jim Thompson circulated a draft plan to return employees to a hybrid workflow. But Todd Thielmann, Wendt’s chief of staff, responded that Wendt’s staff “will not be following” the plan.
“Breakthrough cases of Covid-19, street crime, hostile work environment and discrimination makes the return untenable,” Thielmann wrote in the Oct. 5 email obtained by The Daily Line.
But Cabonargi said Monday that the office does “need to get back to a new normal — we need staff to be mentoring one another in the office.”
Because of months-long delays in assessments by county Assessor Fritz Kaegi’s office, the Board of Review is set to handle hundreds of thousands of tax appeals on a compressed timeline this year. The board typically begins accepting appeals each September, but the first batch of townships could not file Board of Review appeals for the 2021 tax year until last month.
“You are single-handedly seeing to it that we cannot reopen the board…and that is your choice, to be a disruptive force to prevent us from moving forward here,” Cabonargi told Wendt during the virtual meeting on Monday, pointing two fingers at his camera. “We’ve got enough stress on us right now with a session that’s going to run very long…and we need to get back into the office and serve the public.
“It’s a credit to the 55 percent of your staff who did the right thing in spite of you and your failed leadership,” Cabonargi added. “You voted against following the science, and you’ll have to live with that.”
The 100-minute meeting turned increasingly bitter and personal in an echo of nearly every public forum the three commissioners have held during the past year. Cabonargi accused Wendt of “incompetence,” prompting Wendt to answer with charges of bullying and sexism.
When Rogers raised the possibility that some of Wendt’s staffers could be fired for breaking the Board of Review’s vaccination policy, Wendt invoked the FBI investigation hanging over the agency since an alleged bribery scheme surfaced last summer.
“We keep a person on staff with pay who is on a recording taking cash bribes, but we're going to fire someone that hasn't filled out a survey?” Wendt asked.
Rogers and Cabonargi did not directly respond to the comment but have said the employee in question has been placed on administrative leave and cut off from any Board of Review powers.
Wendt has repeatedly accused her colleagues of locking her out of decision-making processes, saying they have dodged the Illinois Open Meetings Act in the process. They have denied the charge while pointing to Wendt’s hiring of Thielmann, who is her first cousin, as her chief of staff in open violation of county anti-nepotism rules.
Related: Board of Review runs afoul of state transparency laws, Wendt charges: ‘They want to…operate in the dark’
Wendt took up the transparency cause again on Monday, airing a proposal to ramp up the Board of Review’s sporadic public meeting schedule to a regular semi-monthly meeting. Rogers and Cabonargi said they would take it under consideration.
The conflict reached a new height in October, when Wendt spoke up during a county budget hearing to counter-propose her own 2022 spending plan for the Board of Review. She said the budget proposed by Preckwinkle and ultimately approved in a unanimous vote by the Board of Commissioners had been crafted behind her back.
Related: Board of Review scolded by commissioners over budget, ethics squabbles: ‘This is outrageous’
The Cook County Democratic Party, which is chaired by Preckwinkle, voted last month to back Chicago Ald. George Cardenas’ (12) primary challenge against Wendt this year. Wendt did not ask for the party nod — but Rogers nonetheless publicly spoke up for Wendt’s ouster, telling the auditorium full of party honchos that Wendt has been a “disaster” since her swearing-in at the end of 2020.
Related: Dems back Cardenas for Board of Review, turning on ‘disaster’ Wendt while backing other incumbents
After the commissioners finished discussing the vaccination policy on Monday, they voted to approve a proposal by Rogers to “communicate by memo” to Wendt’s staff that they are required under Board of Review policy to answer the survey on their vaccination status.
The vote was 2-1.