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Judge releases Chicago from Shakman political hiring decree

U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier declared an end to plaintiff Michael Shakman’s “ultra-marathon” to rid Chicago of the political hiring, firing, promotions and overtime that, just a decade ago, were the fuel that drove then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political machine. 

Chicago City Hall
Chicago City Hall.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A federal judge on Monday released Chicago from the 42-year-old Shakman decree and dismissed a federal hiring monitor, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel has a long way to go to lift the “cloud of mistrust” from a hiring scandal with a $22.9 million pricetag.

Emanuel acknowledged as much after U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier declared an end to plaintiff Michael Shakman’s “ultra-marathon” to rid Chicago of the political hiring, firing, promotions and overtime that, just a decade ago, were the fuel that drove then-Mayor Richard M. Daley’s political machine.

“Our politics in the past cost the taxpayers real money. We have to earn their trust every day and prove that we … have the people and the systems in place to actually be self-monitoring,” the mayor said after a rare appearance in federal court.

Emanuel said Chicagoans are “not naïve” enough to believe that attempts to influence city hiring will “magically disappear overnight.” But, he argued that, “after living under a cloud of mistrust for decades,” City Hall has earned the right to police itself.

“This an acknowledgement that we have cleaned up the past,” he said.

Schenkier said his finding of “substantial compliance” does not mean the city has “achieved a state of perfection.” Rather, it means that the city, “by its actions,” no longer needs to be under the “extraordinary restrictions” of a federal hiring monitor.

City Hall “could have reached this point much sooner,” had it followed recommendations” made by monitor Noelle Brennan in 2005 and 2006, but, “Better late to the party than never,” the judge said.

“Changing a long culture of patronage generally is not a revolutionary change but an evolutionary one…This evolutionary change has taken a solid footing” in Chicago, he said.

The judge acknowledged the lingering mistrust voiced by eight objectors who addressed the court at the start of Monday’s two-and-a-half-hour hearing.

All of them were current or former city employees who claim to have been denied overtime, promotions, choice assignments or black-listed because they either lacked clout or blew the whistle on corruption and wrongdoing.

“I understand that fear, given what has happened in the past. But, the idea that no one will be looking over the city’s shoulder is not right,” the judge said, pointing to Inspector General Joe Ferguson and a fully-staffed Department of Human Resources run by a former lieutenant in the inspector general’s office.

“I know you have doubts” about the city’s ability to police itself, the judge said, but the city has “earned the right to prove to you” that it means business.

The biggest doubter of all was Jay Stone, the outspoken son of retired Ald. Bernard Stone (50th).

In 2008, Jay Stone was awarded $75,000 because Brennan believed his claims that he was a sure loser in his 2003 aldermanic election against Ald. Ted Matlak (32nd) because Matlak had the support of the political army commanded by now-convicted former First Deputy Water Commissioner Donald Tomczak.

On Monday, Jay Stone told the court that Emanuel was elected to Congress in 2002 with help from more than 500 foot soldiers commanded by Tomczak and Streets and Sanitation deputy Dan Katalinic, who was also convicted in the hiring scandal.

“Emanuel is part of the problem — not part of the solution,” Jay Stone said as the mayor sat stone-faced a few feet away in federal court.

Arguing that Emanuel has “shown no responsibility or remorse” for having benefited from that illegal patronage army, Stone said allowing Emanuel’s City Hall to police itself was “something out of Kafka or a George Orwell novel.”

The mayor was asked whether he has any regrets about the help he received from Tomczak and Katalinic in his first race for Congress.

“It’s 12 years ago. It’s been spoken to. There’s nothing more to say, except for what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished today and what we have to do going forward,” Emanuel said.

Brennan was appointed in 2005 by a federal judge furious with City Hall for making a mockery of the 1969 Shakman decree that was supposed to ban city hiring and firing.

Former U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen, who took that extraordinary action, was in the courtroom for Monday’s historic hearing. He was one of seven judges to preside over a case that resulted in a 1972 court decree.

Daley’s former patronage chief, streets and sanitation commissioner and two others were subsequently convicted of rigging city hiring to benefit the Hispanic Democratic Organization and other pro-Daley armies of political workers.

Since that time, Chicago taxpayers have spent $22.9 million. That includes: a $12 million fund created to compensate victims of the city’s rigged hiring system; $6.6 million for the hiring monitor; $1.8 million for consultants; $1.5 million for plaintiff’s counsel; and $1 million to outside counsel.

Last month, Shakman and Brennan filed a joint motion in federal court arguing that the city had reached the “substantial compliance” needed to be released from federal oversight.

On Monday, Schenkier agreed and released the city from court oversight, even as he gave past and current city employees 180 days to file additional claims. The judge called Brennan’s $6.6 million in fees a “bargain for the magnitude of work” she has done.

“To say that the city has totally revamped its hiring process would be an understatement,” Brennan said.

The job of policing city hiring, firing and promotions now falls to Ferguson, who has decided to stay on — and possibly serve out his new, four-year term–after dramatically improving his, once-contentious relationship with Emanuel.

“It’s an end-point of court oversight only. It’s the beginning of the city actually earning the trust that the court today — with the endorsement of the monitor and … Michael Shakman and the plaintiffs — has said it deserves,” Ferguson said.

“But, simply having that declaration does not mean we’ve earned the trust of the public…. That trust will now be earned day-in, and day-out.”

For Emanuel, getting out from under the Shakman decree is a huge accomplishment — both politically and financially.

But, Shakman warned, “In the long-term, Mayor Emanuel’s legacy will be evaluated based on … whether his commitment to patronage reform while he was subject to this court’s oversight remains strong after that oversight ended.”