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MIHALOPOULOS: Dart, Preckwinkle divide played out over jail contract

Monday, September 11, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Dan Mihalopoulos

Preckwinkle divide played out over jail contract

DAN MIHALOPOULOS 09/10/2017, 08:51pm

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, seen together in 2015, have been sharply at odds behind the scenes over a new contract for Cook County Jail officers. | Sun-Times files

Sheriff Tom Dart, the elected official who runs the Cook County Jail, is highly critical of the deal that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has reached with the union for officers at the jail.

The sheriff has been quiet in the weeks since the Preckwinkle administration and the jail guards’ union, Teamsters Union Local 700, reached an agreement.

Behind the scenes, though, Dart and Preckwinkle aides were engaged in a heated war of words over the new contract.

Dart says the deal will tie his hands as he tries to reduce the swelling bills for absenteeism and overtime at the county lockup.

In correspondences I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a Dart aide blasted the new Teamsters deal as a “lost opportunity” to better manage jail officers — who are notorious for going AWOL, at high cost to county taxpayers already facing greater and greater burdens.

But Preckwinkle is never one to back down from critics, as evidenced by her unblinking defense of the unpopular new pop tax. An aide to the embattled county board president fired back at Dart in even sharper terms, lecturing the sheriff’s office on how management should deal with unionized public employees.

“We are disappointed with the end result,” Nicholas Scouffas, general counsel for Dart, wrote to two Preckwinkle aides on July 10. “The sheriff’s office has from day one made it clear that this round of negotiations should not be business as usual.”

Scouffas wrote that family medical leave time taken by jail officers doubled between 2012 and 2016 and that “the amount of time lost to [injured-on-duty] claims doubled in one year.” As a result, overtime costs at the jail rose to $24 million last year, from $18.7 million in 2015, according to Scouffas.

The sheriff’s office accused Preckwinkle’s administration of backing down on proposals Dart had urged be “key items” in the union contract.

“Since these pieces did not make it into the agreement, the sheriff’s office will continue to struggle to cut overtime in a meaningful way,” Scouffas wrote.

Seventeen days later, a Preckwinkle aide replied that Scouffas’ letter and other comments to administration officials “were full of mischaracterization and blame.”

“Your disappointment in the deal is misplaced,” wrote Velisha Haddox, chief of the county’s Bureau of Human Resources. “It should lie with your office’s negative bargaining history with the Teamsters and your team’s inability to accomplish work rule changes in the last round of bargaining.”

Haddox wrote that Dart couldn’t assume that problems which had been building up for years could be resolved in a single round of bargaining.

“You have to build relationships, build trust with your employees and be willing to give something in exchange for what you hope to receive from the unions,” she wrote.

Leaders of the union, which represents about 3,500 workers at the jail, have praised the negotiations with the Preckwinkle administration as “very fair” in a letter to members, Crain’s Chicago Business reported.

Local 700 is headed by Becky Strzechowski, a close ally of former Chicago Teamsters boss John Coli Sr. Coli was indicted in July on charges of shaking down Cinespace Studios Chicago.

Strzechowski was unseated after just two days as Coli’s replacement as the leader of the joint council for all of the union’s locals in the Chicago area.

Asked what the contract would cost compared to the current Teamsters deal, Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan says the agreement has not yet received approval from the county board, and administration officials “do not comment on specifics . . . until after the actual contracts are finalized.

“What I can tell you is that with any negotiation, there was give and take,” Shuftan says. “In this case, the sheriff had a seat at the negotiating table.”

The jail guards seem happy with what they are getting from the deal. What’s unclear, though, is how much Cook County’s taxpayers will be giving them.

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