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COMMENTARY: Here's how the Shakman case curbed Cook County patronage

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by By Michael L. Shakman

Here's how the Shakman case curbed Cook County patronage

I am one of the plaintiffs in the so-called “Shakman case,” and have been so for almost half a century. In fact, the Shakman decrees (a term that refers to a series of court orders directing government employment reform) have become a fixture in Chicago and Illinois politics. This is a good time to take stock of where this long-term initiative stands and how it has sought to reform patronage in Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois.

On Oct. 31, Cook County government was released from federal court oversight of its employment system after almost 50 years of litigation. That is good news for taxpayers, for thousands of county employees, and for those who depend on Cook County services. It shows that the federal courts can accomplish major reforms, especially when a public official, in this case Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, supports the effort.

The county now joins Chicago, the Cook County sheriff’’s office and the Cook County Forest Preserve District in leaving federal court oversight.

Still subject to federal court orders are the governor’s office, the Cook County assessor, the Cook County recorder of deeds and clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court. Although the city and county are no longer under federal court supervision, they remain subject to the law that forbids patronage practices.

For the benefit of people who don’t recall why patronage reform is important, and why the recent accomplishments of Preckwinkle and the county are significant, here are the facts.

In 1969, when the Shakman lawsuit was filed, there were almost 40,000 public jobs in Chicago and Cook County that were filled on the basis of Democratic political patronage. A similar system existed in the suburbs and in state government, although the political party that benefited was Republican.

Patronage was serfdom. People who wanted to work for the government had to apply to their committeeman, not to a government hiring department. The availability of job openings was kept secret. If the committeeman sponsored the applicant, the applicant got the job. But in return the employee had to pay a part of his or her salary to the committeeman, and had to do election work for the candidates supported by the committeeman — in perpetuity. Failure to comply meant being fired.

The patronage system was bad for everyone but the politicians who used it to extort money and political work from public employees, and to control elections. Employees lost their political freedom. The public lost honest services because political work generated job security, while doing the government job well did not. The democratic process lost fair elections because public resources were hijacked for partisan purposes.

Not surprisingly, the courts found the employment system unconstitutional. That was the easy part. Implementing reform has proved to be the hard part.

Between 1972, the date of the first of a series of Shakman decrees, and the 2005 “Hired Truck” scandal in Chicago, enforcement operated on the honor system.

Except there was little honor involved.

Following revelations of widespread violations of the Shakman decrees (thanks to a federal criminal investigation), plaintiffs in the Shakman case sought contempt findings against the city of Chicago and Cook County.

U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen responded by appointing compliance administrators to monitor and report on what was actually going on in government employment practices because the oversight covers more than hiring — it monitors job assignments, advancement, overtime and other aspects of work and career.

The changes were major.

• First, compliance with court orders is no longer on the honor system. Compliance administrators report to the court and the public on what is really happening in the hiring and promotion of public employees. Judge Andersen and his successor, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier, supported their efforts and made the process transparent and honest. Former Cook County Circuit Judge Julia Nowicki was appointed to oversee Cook County government. She was succeeded by attorney Mary Robinson. Nowicki and Robinson had the support of strong staffs of investigators and lawyers and did excellent, nonpartisan work.

• Second, Andersen and Schenkier encouraged public officials to cooperate by offering a way out of court oversight in return for eliminating patronage practices and, equally important, putting in place systems to prevent their reappearance. Some officials resisted. Others, like Preckwinkle, embraced the reforms and instructed those involved in the county’s employment system to make it operate lawfully.

• Third, the compliance administrators and those involved in the employment system work together to put in place professional practices. That has meant such practices as establishing defined job duties, creating public notices of job openings, ending ad hoc hiring and setting up a lottery for jobs that require minimum qualifications.

• Fourth, new employment systems had to include procedures to enforce the new rules once court oversight of a Shakman decree ended. For Cook County that meant building a compliance structure into the personnel departments of each major agency. It also meant turning over the job of investigating and policing compliance to an independent inspector general.

As Judge Schenkier said when he approved the request to end jurisdiction of the decree over Cook County, Preckwinkle’s commitment is proof that we need not be chained to the past. Other public officials who remain subject to the court’s orders can take note of what Preckwinkle and the county accomplished. If the others make similar commitments, they can end their status as defendants in one of the oldest cases on the federal court’s docket.

I can then become a footnote in the history books, instead of an active litigant.

Chicago attorney Michael L. Shakman filed the 1969 lawsuit that led to the Shakman decrees.

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