Cook County Board members have missed hundreds of meetings in the past five years, an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago’s I-Team has found — with four county commissioners absent at least a quarter of the time.
Commissioner Bridget Gainer had the worst attendance record, records show. The North Side Democrat missed 162 of 504 meetings of the board and its committees — nearly a third of the official meetings she was supposed to attend in the past five years.
In the first three years of her current four-year term, Gainer missed half the meetings of board committees she’s assigned to, minutes of those meetings show.
Gainer — who is seeking re-election this year to a third term — said she has been at the majority of meetings of the full board, though. Still, in missing 17 percent of the full board meetings over five years, Gainer was third to last among all commissioners, the Sun-Times/ABC7 analysis found. Only Jeff Tobolski, D-McCook, and Jerry “Iceman” Butler, D-Chicago, missed more board meetings than Gainer.
Besides Gainer, commissioners who missed the most board and committee meetings during the five-year period were Butler (31 percent), John Fritchey (29 percent) and Tobolski (28 percent).
No one else on the county board missed more than 16 percent of their meetings, according to the analysis, which looked back as far as 2013.
Gainer said her hectic schedule as “a working mother” was the main reason for having the poorest attendance, noting that she is “the only mom with school-age children on the board.
“Have I missed some meetings? Sure,” Gainer said. “I’ve missed some of my kids’ games, too. And that bothers me more.”
Butler — who’s not running for re-election — did not return messages. Fritchey and Tobolski each blamed missing recent meetings on health issues.
Most of the board and committee meetings are held during the day at the Cook County administration building downtown at 118 N. Clark.
Each commissioner is paid $85,000 a year by the county.
Gainer also is head of the public affairs group for Aon, the professional services firm but said that hasn’t caused her to miss so many government meetings, “not even a little bit.”
Gainer said she has worked hard on Cook County initiatives outside of the public board meetings. She chairs the Cook County Land Bank, formed in 2013, which acquires and sells vacant homes.
“So much of the work that happens at the county goes on outside the board meetings,” Gainer said. “I’m juggling a lot like every other working mother. I really focus on getting things done.”
Gainer, who was an aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley, has previously said that running against Mayor Rahm Emanuel is “definitely something I’m thinking about.” She succeeded Mike Quigley in 2009 as a county commissioner representing the 10th District when Quigley was elected to Congress. She represents much of the city’s north lakefront and the Northwest Side on the county board.
Mary Ann Kosiak, a personal injury attorney, has filed to challenge Gainer in the Democratic primary next month. Kosiak did not return calls seeking comment.
Fritchey’s challenger, Bridget Degnen, has been eager to make an issue of Fritchey’s absences.
Like Gainer, Fritchey noted he has a higher rate of attendance for full board meetings — he’s missed 13 percent of those — than for committee sessions.
Fritchey said his absences haven’t hurt his effectiveness.
“I would respectfully submit the productivity of my record up against any of my colleagues, and I mean that with all due respect to my colleagues,” Fritchey said, saying it’s “very uncommon” for him to spend less than 60 hours a week on his county job.
Often when he’s missed committee meetings, Fritchey said he was at work in his office behind the board meeting room or was busy working with county officials.
“If I’m not in that chamber on the day of a board meeting, I’m in here taking meetings,” he said in an interview at his office at the county building.
Fritchey said a “significant cancer scare that wound up not being cancer” had caused him to miss many meetings since September 2016.
Tobolski — who also serves as mayor of McCook — said he has been seriously ill during the past year, too.
“I almost died,” Tobolski said. “I was just not physically able to get out of the hospital … I think that’s a reasonable explanation.”
Even before they were ill, the Sun-Times/ABC7 analysis shows, Tobolski and Fritchey had more absences from committee meetings than most other commissioners. They missed committee meetings more than 25 percent of the time.
Tobolski is unopposed in this year’s election. He said that shows voters are pleased with his performance.
“I realize what the taxpayers put in for my salary to be here, but … at the end of the day, I’m only concerned with my constituency,” Tobolski said.
Fritchey’s primary challenger, Degnen, said his health scare is not a valid excuse for his relatively high absence rate.
“His poor attendance is throughout his duration on the board,” said Degnen, who resigned as a state regulator of medical marijuana dispensaries in October to run against Fritchey. “As a public official, you should put public service first and make it a full-time job.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has missed a couple meetings, according to board records.
“As a former teacher, President Preckwinkle understands well the importance of attendance,” Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan said. “But more importantly she believes that, barring extraordinary circumstances, public officials must go the extra mile to ensure they honor the trust placed in them to properly administer to the public’s business.”
Commissioner John Daley, D-Chicago, also has been at every board meeting during the past five years, and had the best attendance rate for committee meetings. He was marked absent at only two of more than 300 meetings of his committees since 2013 — a 99.4 percent attendance mark.
“You have to be here,” Daley said. “I think it’s important to be here and listen to the testimony and, if there are questions, ask [administration officials], then ask the department heads questions, and form your own opinions.”
Commissioner Richard Boykin, a first-term Democrat from Oak Park, has been at every board meeting. And he has the second-best overall attendance mark, after Daley: Boykin has been at all but five committee meetings since he was first elected in 2014.
Said Boykin, who faces a challenger in the coming primary: “I think it’s important that we show up.”
Contributing: Jason Knowles and Ann Pistone of ABC7 Chicago