Know-who over know-how? Clout alive and kicking in Cook County Board of Review hiring, watchdog finds

The inspector general found the board has no formal hiring process, hired people “despite incomplete application materials and lack of formal process,” and asks job applicants “‘who recommended you to us?’”

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Cook County Board of Review Commissioners Dan Patlak, left; Larry Rogers Jr., center; and Michael Cabonargi, right.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioners Dan Patlak, left, in 2016; Larry Rogers Jr., center, in 2012; and Michael Cabonargi, right, earlier this year.

Sun-Times file photos by Rich Hein, Tom Cruze and Rich Hein

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, some pols apparently still “don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

At least that’s what a Cook County watchdog is suggesting about the Cook County Board of Review, which cleans up the quintessential question of clout on its application forms a tad, asking job seekers, “Who recommended you to us?”

That hiring process helped pull in politically connected workers, including the child of one commissioner’s law partner. And it entails inviting employees to get involved in the political campaigns of commissioners.

That’s what Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard’s review of the obscure office found. 

Who recommends a potential employee to the Board of Review could be a greater factor in hiring decisions than experience or other factors, Blanchard’s office concluded.

The inspector general’s office was initially tipped off that the board “maintains a custom and practice of reliance on political factors in making hiring decisions” in non-managerial roles.

Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard

Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard

Tom Cruze/Chicago Sun-Times file

In the report, the inspector general found the board, which handles appeals of property assessments, has no formal hiring process, hired people “despite incomplete application materials and lack of formal process,” and uses an application form that contains the question “‘who recommended you to us?’”

Michael Shakman, whose half-century-old legal battle to keep politics out of hiring and the internal affairs of county and city government resulted in court decrees bearing his name, said that’s not a common question to ask job applicants.

And “not only is it not common — it’s inappropriate,” he said.

“Government agencies are supposed to take people on the merits of their credentials and interviews on a competitive basis,” Shakman said. “This [report] tells you they’re not doing that.”

Michael Shakman in 1970, left, and in 2014, right.

Michael Shakman in 1970, left, and in 2014, right.

Pete Peters and Chandler West.

The Chicago question of who-you-know was immortalized by the late liberal lion Abner Mikva, who famously recounted how his efforts to volunteer for political work in 1948 were rejected by a cigar-chewing Chicago ward boss, who told him, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Smoking in public was long ago outlawed in Chicago, but clout has been harder to stamp out.

At the Board of Review, many employees are also connected in some way to the three commissioners who oversee property assessment appeals. Job openings aren’t typically posted online because the office operates under a “referral basis,” the inspector general’s report reads in part.

One analyst in the office is the child of a commissioner’s law partner. She works as a residential analyst despite having no prior experience in the area, and is also described as a computer operator, even though she told the inspector general’s office she’d “never performed any IT related work.”

The three elected commissioners running the board are Republican Dan Patlak and Democrats Larry Rogers Jr. and Michael Cabonargi, who lost his bid for clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court earlier this year.

Michael Cabonargi

Michael Cabonargi, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate, earlier this year.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

Jobs aren’t posted online, there are no formal job descriptions and employees were invited to work on the commissioners’ political campaigns on their personal time, the report concludes.

The details in the report reminded Shakman of the clout-heavy days of yore.

“What [this report] describes is a full blown, classic, old-style patronage operation of the sort that I thought had been abolished by our efforts in the Shakman case over a number of years,” Shakman said.

The Board of Review was never named as part of the suit Shakman filed seeking to curtail political interference in hiring practices in government agencies, but Blanchard said government agencies are “required to adhere to the principles upon which Shakman was filed, whether you’re a defendant or not.”

In a joint statement, the commissioners of the board of review said the agency is “operating at an unprecedented level of transparency, giving homeowners access to the appeals system and ensuring they fully understand the process to pay their fair share and not a penny more.”

“We’re proud of the work we’ve put into making the Board of Review more transparent and accountable, while staffing and retaining a qualified workforce that’s processing a record-breaking number of appeals, and we’re fully committed to making sure that progress and our commitment to transparency continues at all levels of the Board,” the statement continued.

Cabonargi said in a statement the board is already implementing some of Blanchard’s recommendations, which include posting job openings on the website and writing job descriptions.

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