Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart dumped high-ranking jail officers to cut payroll following the repeal of a countywide tax on sugary drinks, but kept political appointees who supervised acupuncture, cable television and “talent for inmates,” a lawsuit by laid-off officers contends.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Circuit Court by 17 former jail commanders, argues the senior officers were not allowed to dodge layoffs by taking a drop in rank, and were targeted because they had been active in a union drive that had reached a successful conclusion just months before the layoff.
A spokeswoman for Dart fired back that the sheriff was coping with a “bad hand” dealt after County Board President Toni Preckwinkle mandated sweeping cuts— and said the department has never employed an acupuncturist, nor the other positions named in the lawsuit.
“There is not, and never will be, a director of acupuncture at the jail,” said Cara Smith, Dart’s director of policy. “We have staff at the jail that just fundamentally disagree with the sheriff on everything, and they just make things up.”
The lawsuit is the second filed by officers holding the rank of commander. In December, a group of six commanders who lost their jobs filed a similar suit in federal court, alleging that they, too, were fired because of their participation in union organizing from 2011 forward and their persistent complaints about safety and staffing at the county jail.
In all, 23 of the 24 officers who held the title of commander before the layoffs have sued.
Both suits allege Dart has hired some 200 civilians as directors, high-paying appointed jobs whose ranks were not thinned in the same proportion as employees whose jobs have a more direct role in public safety.
“These appointed positions are not only unnecessary, bloated, and financially draining of the limited resources of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, but are non‐essential, non‐merit rank positions that do not serve and protect the citizens of Cook County,” attorney Dana Kurtz wrote in the 56-page Cook County lawsuit, which seeks damages, back pay and immediate reinstatement for the laid-off officers.
Smith said the layoffs were necessary because of mandates from Preckwinkle, who rejected other cost-cutting measures suggested by Dart after the sweetened beverage tax revenues had to be stripped out of the 2018 budget.
“This lawsuit is the direct result of the dramatic and unreasonable budget cuts imposed by the County Board President on our office,” Smith said in a statement. “The scope of the cuts — almost $60 million dollars — evidenced a gross misunderstanding of the public safety work and mission of the Sheriff’s Office.”
Preckwinkle’s office said Thursday that the sheriff was mischaracterizing the budget process that arose after the loss of soda tax revenue stripped $200 million from the county budget, and that Dart’s suggested reductions didn’t “achieve the required savings.”
The lawsuit claims the title of commander was added to the jail hierarchy only after officers with the rank of captain voted to form a union, and after litigation gave them the right to bargain in 2013, their jobs were renamed. Smith said commander jobs are “exempt” positions, which don’t qualify for union protections that require them to be fired for cause or entitle them to bump to a lower rank to avoid a layoff.
Smith said numerous civilian jobs were given “director” titles several years ago to move the positions into job classifications that didn’t qualify for seniority raises.