No longer ‘trapped by the past,’ county freed from political hiring oversight

SHARE No longer ‘trapped by the past,’ county freed from political hiring oversight
Michael Shakman in 1970, left, and in 2014, right.

Lawyer Michael Shakman in 1970, left, and in 2014, right. Sun-Times file photos by Pete Peters and Chandler West.

Pete Peters and Chandler West.

Half a century ago, being a Cook County worker meant fabricating documents to get the job, being forced to buy political fund-raising tickets to keep it and relying on political connections to get promoted.

That left employees defeated and disillusioned, said Mary Robinson, the compliance administrator for the county.

It took nearly fifty years of federal oversight to rid the county of its rampant patronage problem.

And Cook County’s employment practices are now free from that federal supervision.

Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier removed the county from the constraints of the Shakman decree Wednesday, finding the county to be in “substantial compliance” with the fair hiring and employment practices that were established in a 2006 supplemental relief order that laid out a plan to address the county’s employment practices.

“I am proud of the work we’ve done over the last eight years to bring this suit to conclusion and, as Mike Shakman said, this is a good day for Cook County government and a good day for the people of Cook County,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said, calling the decision a “substantial milestone.”

Mayoral candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Mayoral candidate and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

There were no objections and no one spoke in opposition to the decision, which will effect about 10,500 employees offices Preckwinkle oversees, including the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, the Office of the Independent Inspector General and the Public Defender.

Preckwinkle announced in August that she wanted out of the constraints the lawsuit set. Since 2006, the Shakman suit has cost county taxpayers around $8 million. Around $3 million of that went to claims from employees who said patronage played a role in them advancing in their careers.

Laura Lechowicz Felicione, legal counsel to Preckwinkle, said that the other costs have been operational and helped the county usher in improvements to curb patronage. The county now has an online application system and technological improvements resulted in a verified employment process.

The suit was initially filed in 1969 — with a consent decree following in 1972 — but it wasn’t until the 2006 order that employment reforms started in earnest at the county.

Michael Shakman, who filed the landmark lawsuit that culminated in the federal consent decree that bears his name, said the county being found in compliance is a “historic moment” and a “happy day.”

“[The government officials, courts and special monitors] reformed Cook County government in an important way that’s going to make a real difference to the people who work for county government, who are getting a fair employment system, a fair chance at advancement,” Shakman said. “It’s great for the public because patronage has been eliminated from county government and that means that people who are paying the taxes will get a fair days work for a fair days pay.”

In ruling that the county was in compliance with the decree, Schenkier commended Preckwinkle, Inspector General Pat Blanchard, Public Defender Amy Campanelli and Jay Shannon, CEO of the health and hospitals system for their work in bringing the county into compliance with the clout-busting plan.

Going forward, Blanchard’s office will be in charge of investigating patronage complaints.

“This is a big day,” Schenkier said. “A day where we see we don’t have to be trapped by the past, trapped by the history of things. We can move forward, but it takes dedication.”

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