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Federal monitor: Kaegi not on ‘effective path’ to end oversight of assessor’s office hiring

Monitor Susan G. Feibus said in her report that Kaegi’s office has “not grasped the level of scrutiny” that comes with being under federal oversight.

Fritz Kaegi
Then Cook County Assessor Democratic primary candidate Fritz Kaegi last year. File photo.
Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi is under fire from a court-appointed monitor for delays in implementing new hiring policies meant to keep politics out of his office and failing to understand what needs to be done to escape the federal microscope.

Susan G. Feibus, the Shakman monitor for the office, said in her report, which was filed in federal court last week, that Kaegi’s office has “not grasped the level of scrutiny” that comes with being under federal oversight.

That “lack of understanding” was demonstrated through employee actions that resist “Shakman-related concerns voiced by” Feibus, she said.

“This is not an effective path to substantial compliance,” Feibus writes.

Michael Shakman is the lawyer who filed the landmark anti-patronage lawsuit that culminated in the 1972 federal consent decree that bears his name. It resulted in federal oversight of a number of city and county offices, including the assesssor’s office.

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

The assessor’s progress toward meeting the goals that would help shake it free from federal oversight has been fraught with delays, from the stalled implementation of “long-overdue” revisions to the employment plan to the delayed rollout of position descriptions for union and non-union positions and the subsequent holdup of the start of a performance evaluation process among other things, the monitor found.

In the 19-page report, Feibus notes the office has done some things well, such as updating its employee handbook, offering extensive training on the changes and largely hiring people in compliance with its current employment plan.

But there’s been a lot of turnover — seven of the 25 positions that do not fall under Shakman oversight, or 28%, have been vacated in the 10 months since Kaegi’s been in office, according to the report.

In a statement, Chief Deputy Assessor Sarah Garza Resnick said the office is proud of the work it’s done so far to bring the office into compliance with Shakman policies and that the report stated there haven’t been any violations in the hiring process since the last report in December.

“Assessor Kaegi places the utmost importance on reaching substantial compliance with the Shakman Decree,” the statement reads in part. “The Inspector General Patrick Blanchard stated in court this morning that there have been no allegations or complaints of unlawful political discrimination. Going forward we will be meeting regularly with the ACA and plaintiff’s counsel to address communication and compliance paperwork issues as we continue to work towards substantial compliance.”

The office’s director of compliance, Matthew Serio, said in his own report Kaegi’s administration has made steps toward being free of Shakman and he’s “confident that substantial compliance is on the horizon, not beyond it.”

Brian Hays, the lawyer who represents the Shakman class plaintiffs, pointed to the new employee handbook and an on-going revision process for it as signs that the office is trying to make strides in the right direction.

“The report reflects the growing pains of a new administration going through the process of learning the policies and procedures in place under the prior administration while at the same time amending those policies and procedures to improve them and make them work for their office,” Hays said.

Kaegi defeated former Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios in last year’s Democratic Primary, then went on to clobber Republican Joseph Paglia in the November general election with a campaign platform focused on bringing progressive reforms into the office.

Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios
Then Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios talks with fellow Democrats at a political meeting last year. File Photo.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The office has been under Shakman oversight since 1972. Monitors during Berrios’ administration accused the longtime assessor of engaging in political firings and not seriously attempting to end patronage hiring — accusations that likely weren’t helped by the fact that Berrios’ daughter was on the payroll.

Kaegi’s office has already run afoul of hiring policies. In June, the chief deputy assessor asked Cook County commissioners to loan out staff members as the office prepared to “serve a high value of taxpayers at our office” during the second installment of property tax bills.

Blanchard said that request, which was first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, “violates the principles that Shakman stands for.”

Feibus writes that while the assessor’s office withdrew its request, “this incident indicates the chief deputy assessor’s apparent inability to identify a significant Shakman issue, a lack of knowledge about the notice required to the [director of compliance] and [assessor compliance administrator] for all employment actions and the failure to seek counsel, internal or external, from those who do.”

Hays said despite the issues raised in the report he thinks Kaegi is still committed to changing the office.

“The commitment [to bringing the office into compliance] is much improved,” Hays said. “Assessor Kaegi has made it clear he’s committed to an ethical office ... and he’s made that message very clear to the people in the office who work for him.”