In January, two months after he was elected to the Cook County Board, Commissioner Forrest Claypool began gathering support for a resolution calling for the ouster of Joseph Nevius, the general superintendent of the county’s forest preserves. Financial managers at the forest preserves had told county commissioners in 1999 that they were at least $16 million in debt, and three years later the system was still running a deficit. Claypool had campaigned for his seat as a reformer, vowing to clean up the forest preserves.
Claypool still thinks he would have had the votes to make his plan work. Commissioner Bobbie L. Steele, a 16-year board veteran, disagreed. Besides, she noted, only the board president, John H. Stroger Jr., had the power to remove Nevius. Commissioners “can’t force anyone out of office against the will of the president,” she said. “We can [only] request that the president do so.”
Commissioner Gregg Goslin found Claypool’s tactics inappropriate. “You don’t tar and feather someone in public,” said Goslin, a board member since 1998. “The general superintendent wasn’t the problem-the whole operation was.”
At the next board meeting, before Claypool could act, Stroger announced that Nevius had resigned.
Nevius “is a good human being, but he was not a tough guy,” Stroger said later. “And where we made a mistake probably was not firing him and looking for someone else. But it got to the point where I had to accept his resignation.”
In a manner typical of the county board, the action was taken behind closed doors, with Stroger in control.
Often overshadowed by the City of Chicago, the Cook County government goes largely unnoticed by many of the county’s more than 5 million residents. Few understand how the county’s operations work, or how they are supposed to work. Yet it has a $2.9 billion budget that covers vital public services, including the nation’s largest unified court system and jail, and its second-largest public health system. It’s also responsible for 68,000 acres of forest preserves. In all, the county employs about 27,000 people. Many of its responsibilities, divided among 96 departments, are carried out by elected officials, including the county clerk, the treasurer, the sheriff and the state’s attorney.
The county’s finances lie in the hands of the 17-member board of commissioners, and Stroger controls the board. Elected countywide, the president is the county board’s chief executive officer, responsible for putting together the county budget, which funds all 96 departments. He also directly controls 41 county departments, including those responsible for zoning, highways and public hospitals. The president has the power to make many high-level appointments in these departments. Now 74, Stroger has led the county since 1994, and also serves as Democratic committeeman of Chicago’s 8th Ward. He makes $170,000 a year as board president.
Other county commissioners, who are each elected to represent a geographical district, are responsible for reviewing and approving the budget as well as every individual expense exceeding $10,000. They can introduce legislation, and also must approve some administrative appointments. The commissioners earn $85,000 a year.
From December to April, The Chicago Reporter attended board and committee meetings and studied county board minutes, agendas and voting records from the past five years. In addition, the Reporter interviewed more than 20 past and present commissioners.
From this, a clear picture of the board’s unique culture emerged: Commissioners say they have little power as individuals and no defined, specific responsibilities. Many, including Stroger, say most of the items that come before them are routine “housekeeping” matters. The board passed every one of the thousands of items that came before it in the last three years, and lobbying and back-room compromises often took the place of open debate and negotiation.
“We are not really a legislative body,” said Jerry “Iceman” Butler, a Democratic commissioner whose district includes parts of the South and Southwest sides as well as suburban areas. “We are really more a board of directors for Cook County. Our duty is [essentially to ensure] that the sheriff has enough money.”
The board has recently won praise for avoiding tax hikes and overseeing construction of a new county hospital, named after Stroger. But critics charge that the board’s neglect has allowed other problems to surface. In the past few years, Cook County has made headlines: forest preserve managers allegedly ignored a culture of sexual harassment among employees; bond money raised to build a new domestic violence courthouse was spent elsewhere; and FBI agents investigated county employees who allegedly did no work.
Newspaper editorialists heralded five new commissioners elected in November, predicting that, along with veteran board members Mike Quigley and Earlean Collins, they would help change the board’s culture. Since then, these commissioners have caught the press and public’s attention by attempting to reform the forest preserves. In early July, after the Chicago Sun-Times found that forest preserves property and facilities were in disrepair, they met Stroger’s wrath by going outside normal county procedure to petition Gov. Rod Blagojevich for funds to address the problems. But, while their methods are regarded as rash by Stroger and other veteran commissioners, records show that the new commissioners vote in favor of board items at about the same rate as their colleagues.
Collins, who’s been a county commissioner since 1998, said Stroger, with help from South Side Commissioner John P. Daley, has firm control of the board. “Quite frankly, there’s no need for the rest of us to be here,” she said. “The rest of us are here as rubber stamps. –¦ When you speak out, they paint you like you’re crazy.”
But Stroger said he doesn’t “hold all the cards.” “I don’t make all the decisions,” he said. “Whenever you are the chief executive of any operation you’ve got to be out front.”
But other commissioners say they have few tools to take independent action.
“Individually, commissioners do not have much power,” said Goslin, a north and northwest suburban Republican. “A commissioner learns the system by keeping your mouth shut and your ears open.”
Under this system, commissioners approved all of the 5,879 items on which they voted on from January 2000 through the end of this June, according to an analysis of board reports by the Reporter.
In the same period, 528 items were referred to one of the board’s 17 legislative committees, where, commissioners said, they were discussed thoroughly. But the county’s committee process has become a confusing system governed by unwritten rules. Some items were sent to committees that had no obvious link to their subjects. Other committees simply never met.
“As far as I know, there is no description of the duties of the committees,” said Joseph Mario Moreno, a Democratic commissioner who represents a South Side and south suburban district. “I don’t know why some of them exist.”
And, while critics charge that county government is rife with patronage employees and nepotism, some commissioners defend practices of county leaders hiring friends and political associates, including Stroger’s recent appointment of an in-law to a $174,450-a-year post.
“More often than not, these people are qualified,” Butler said. “Let me say this: Everything is political. When people start making decisions based on ‘This is someone I know’ as opposed to ‘This is someone who is talented,’ that is a problem. But if they make a decision based on ‘This is someone I know’ and ‘Someone I know is talented,’ then that is good government.”
Politics has long been part of the hiring process in Cook County, agreed John P. Pelissero, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the county government. “I think for somebody like John Stroger and many of the other longtime commissioners, it’s very difficult to separate their party roles from their government roles.”
Once an item is on the agenda of the Cook County Board, it’s as good as passed. Board members voted on a total of 5,879 items from January 2000, to the end of this June. All were approved. The board passed 98 percent, or 5,764 items, with no opposition. Stroger, Moreno and Daley, who were on the board the entire period, never voted “no,” and neither did Joan P. Murphy, a south suburban Democrat who began serving in December 2002. Commissioner Carl R. Hansen, a northwest suburban Republican, cast most of the “no” votes, and he was almost always dissenting alone.
The only times more than four commissioners voted against an item were on June 18, 2002, when a $217 million pharmaceutical contract was passed by a 10-5 vote, with one commissioner voting “present” and another absent; and this April 3, when a $288,000 contract for a consulting firm to evaluate and improve cleaning procedures at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital was approved, 12-5.
Many commissioners say most items involve routine financial matters that don’t require discussion. But others counter that the voting patterns show that the board almost always defers to Stroger and rarely engages in substantive debate.
Goslin said he usually votes with Stroger because “most of the items aren’t contentious.” He added, “The president has the most control because he has the broader view of the county.”
Hansen, who has been on the board since 1974, has another view: Many commissioners “just follow [Stroger’s] orders.”
In an April 3 meeting of the Finance Committee, which includes all 17 board members, Stroger discussed a proposal to let an international financial firm take almost $231 million of Cook County’s cash and invest it for 30 years. Some commissioners felt the move was risky.
“I have never disagreed with this administration and I’m not now, but I have some concerns about this item,” said Roberto Maldonado, a Northwest Side Democrat.
Hansen stood up halfway and began yelling. “I don’t see why this should be a no-bid contract. This is the people’s money. –¦ I’m not going to put my name on this, and I don’t think you should.” Stroger looked exasperated. He leaned forward in his seat, which is on
a dais above the other commissioners, and began a long response that praised the county’s chief financial officer, Thomas J. Glaser.
“In my years at the county, I’ve had a lot of experience with finance, but I don’t know everything, so I hired Tom Glaser,” said Stroger. “I’ve talked with Tom about his loyalty, and I trust him.”
He asked Glaser to address the commissioners’ concerns. Glaser, from his seat near Stroger’s, said the risk wasn’t as great as the commissioners thought. He added that the contract was non-competitive because the company “brought us a good idea, and we’d like to reward them so others will bring us good ideas.”
After Glaser answered a few more questions, Stroger spoke again. “I wish the debate could move ahead and take a vote,” he said. “If not, I want us to go to recess. I’ve got about 20 police chiefs over there waiting to be honored.”
Commissioners took turns voicing their opinions during the roll call.
“When I see Tom’s sincerity, I’m convinced we should go on with this,” said Steele.
“I trust the judgment of President Stroger and the CFO,” said Murphy.
“I agree with Joan,” said Moreno. “Tom Glaser is a wizard.”
The commissioners voted, and the measure passed the committee, 12-4, with Butler, Hansen, Maldonado and Anthony J. Peraica, a new west suburban Republican, opposing it. Collins voted “present.”
There are strong incentives for commissioners to go along with the president, said Pelissero of Loyola. Stroger controls many appointments and contracts, “and he can give them to whomever he wants,” Pelissero said. “There are no added perks to going along with other commissioners.”
But Stroger says he has no such power over other board members. “I can’t do anything about these people. I want to make that crystal clear,” he said. “There’s no way I can penalize them. Every commissioner has a right to express his or her rights as they relate to county government.”
All items are passed because few are controversial, he said. “Why would we want to have a fight when it is not necessary to have a fight?” he asked. Besides, he said, the items passed are in the best interest of Cook County residents.
Both Stroger and other commissioners note that budget hearings usually prompt the most debate. Each year, Stroger’s office hands commissioners a roughly 1,200-page budget proposal, and gives them at least 30 days to scrutinize it. In recent years, Hansen has repeatedly proposed amendments to reduce what he says are unnecessary expenses at county hospitals, and they are always voted down.
Hansen is “out there on his own” in those situations, Steele said, adding, “I respect him for that.”
But other commissioners aren’t as patient. In a November 2001 Finance Committee meeting, Quigley, a North Side Democrat, asked Sheriff Michael F. Sheahan to explain his budget requests. Former Republican Commissioner Allan Carr stopped him.
“This is a budget meeting,” Carr said, according to meeting minutes. “This seems to me like we are getting down to the nitty-gritty of different opinions and how to run a sheriff’s department. I think the sheriff, any time I have come to him and asked him a question, has provided me the private moments to come into his office and answer any questions I want. We don’t need an audience like this to do it. I think we should get back to the budget.”
Some budget debates are “more show than substance,” Butler said recently. And staying out of the debate fray is fine with him. “I am not smart enough to go in and take apart someone’s budget that has been worked on for seven or eight months –¦ to try and dissect all the bits and pieces in it and re-shape it to my own liking.”
In late February, the Chicago Tribune reported that an internal Cook County Sheriff’s Department investigation alleged that guards in the Cook County Jail had conducted mass beatings of prisoners in 1999.
On March 12, Steele and Maldonado issued a press release announcing they would hold the “first county hearings” on the beatings in a committee meeting that day. “As Chair of the Law Enforcement and Corrections Committee, I have developed the highest possible regard for our public safety officials,” Maldonado said in the release. “A public hearing is the best way to hear all sides of the story and make an informed decision.”
It was a rare occurrence. The law enforcement committee hadn’t met since May 2002. It met twice in 2001 and once in 2000.
The law enforcement committee is one of many that don’t meet often. The board’s Contract Compliance Committee hasn’t met since at least 1998. The Business and Economic Development Committee has met once in that period, and the Education Committee has met twice.
Long-serving board members say committee meetings are only held when needed. Sometimes the full board sends items to committees for discussion, but not all of these matters are pressing, said Butler, who chairs the Health and Hospitals Committee. The committee met seven times between the beginning of 2000 and the end of this June. “Last year, I had three items that came to my committee, and I could have been proactive and I could have brought up problems, but there weren’t any that serious in order to call a meeting,” he said.
Steele said some items are discussed and agreed on before they hit the board floor. “I’ve added to the budget [this way], and passed amendments that normally would go to committee but have passed on their face on the floor,” she said.
Steele laughed while recalling the incident that taught her the importance of “lobbying.” When she was first elected to the board in 1986, Steele studied the county board’s responsibilities as they were outlined in the state constitution. She visited a range of county department offices. Then she and fellow commissioner Charles Bernardini proposed so many changes in the budget that “we rewrote it,” she said. Then the board “shot them all down,” she remembered.
Steele, a grandmother of 13 and a former elementary school teacher, said she now talks to other commissioners and the president before proposing anything. She said the last ordinance she proposed and passed was to name the new county hospital after Stroger.
To critics, though, commissioners’ private lobbying should be balanced with public dialogue, and the best place for that is in committees.
In most governments, including the city of Chicago’s, the majority of legislative work is done in small committees, said Dick W. Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I still think [county residents] would be better served by a staff of committees that had a set agenda and schedule,” Simpson said. That way, commissioners can look at topics closely and, along with the public, explore issues, he said.
Several committees-Finance, Building and Zoning, and Roads and Bridges-do meet regularly. Each includes all 17 board members.
“Then everybody gets a chance to vent his or her views as related to whatever the question may be,” Stroger explained.
But those “committees of the whole” don’t encourage detailed discussion or public input, said Terrance Norton, a partner with the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, and former executive director of Chicago’s Better Government Association.
Some committees have been meeting more frequently since the new commissioners took office. Larry Suffredin, a north suburban Democrat in his first term, now chairs the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which discusses and reviews appointments. It has met four times in the past six months. It met about four times a year between 2000 and 2002.
Suffredin said there was no review process in place for any appointees when he took his place as chair. After he created one, Stroger told him it wasn’t needed, he said. “The president feels he makes good appointments,” said Suffredin. “He doesn’t think [the system] is necessary.”
According to Stroger, board members receive the resumes of appointees they have to approve, and the commissioners have opportunities to ask them questions.
The board’s practice of circumventing committees may violate the Illinois Open Meetings Act, Norton said. “There’s nothing wrong with one commissioner talking to another about committee business privately, but when decisions are made before items get to the board floor, that in the least violates the spirit of the act,” he said.
The act states that “citizens shall be given advance notice of and the right to attend all meetings at which any business of a public body is discussed or acted on in any way.”
Stroger says he and commissioners do things publicly, in accordance with the law. “There is nothing secret about the operation of this government,” he said.
Other commissioners add that, if citizens want to provide input, they can approach board members individually. And board meetings include a public comment period, but only after votes have been taken. If someone wants to talk before a specific vote, a commissioner has to suspend the board’s normal parliamentary rules.
Cook County has long had a reputation for employing the friends, family and political associates of its leaders. Many commissioners say the practice continues, and they acknowledge that they have little interest in trying to fight it.
Few board members paid much attention last year to the appointment of a new director of the Public Health Department who happened to be an in-law of Stroger’s.
In a Dec. 17 board meeting, Stroger sponsored an ordinance that changed county law so that the position no longer required a medical degree. Daley co-sponsored the measure. It passed unanimously.
The Department of Public Health has a budget of $429 million. Its 77 clinics offer services ranging from vision screenings to HIV/AIDS prevention. Its previous three directors all had medical degrees and doctorates, but Stroger told the Reporter that most public health departments aren’t headed by medical doctors. A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health agreed.
After the departure of Karen L. Scott, the previous head of the Cook County Public Health Department, “I seized the opportunity to broaden the executive branch of that particular government by putting someone in there who was just not narrowly tailored to being a medical doctor,” Stroger said.
That person was Stephen A. Martin Jr. In the Dec. 17 board meeting, Stroger also asked the board to approve Martin’s appointment as director of the Public Health Department. Stroger made a speech to the other commissioners detailing Martin’s accomplishments, and he told the Reporter that he gave them copies of Martin’s resume. Stroger didn’t tell the board that Martin, 31, was his son’s brother-in-law. Martin’s appointment was approved unanimously.
Martin received a master’s degree in epidemiology in 1995 from Tulane University, in New Orleans, and a Ph.D. in epidemiologic science in 2001 from the University of Michigan. According to his resume, he does not have a medical degree.
Martin joined Public Health in 2000 as an epidemiologist, according to department officials. The following year he was tapped to head a lead poisoning prevention unit with a two-year budget of $4.3 million, county budget documents show. Martin earned $92,000 a year in the post.
Stroger said he appointed Martin to the chief executive position because of his credentials, not because he is the brother-in-law of Todd H. Stroger, alderman of Chicago’s 8th Ward.
“[Todd Stroger] and Steve are married to two sisters, and I can’t see the thing wrong with that,” Stroger said. “They seem to be fine young ladies, and I hope they have a long life together.”
“I know Steve Martin’s family from New Orleans,” Stroger continued. “I thought it would be very good for a young person to be in that job. And there’s no question about his qualifications for that job.”
In his new job, Martin makes $174,450 a year, budget documents show. He is also an adjunct professor of epidemiology at UIC. Martin declined to comment for this article.
Commissioners told the Reporter that they knew little about Martin’s credentials. Goslin didn’t remember if he had ever seen Martin’s resume because “there is so much paperwork.” Still, he said he’s “sure President Stroger wouldn’t have appointed someone who couldn’t do the job.”
Hansen also couldn’t recall looking over Martin’s resume, but added, “You can’t say he’s not qualified. I’ve asked a couple of questions, and he’s called back and given me answers.”
And most board members weren’t concerned when they learned Martin was part of Stroger’s extended family.
“I wouldn’t say that he can’t do the job because he’s Todd Stroger’s brother-in-law,” said Murphy. “It sounds like he’s qualified. In fact, he probably has to work harder because people know he’s related to Stroger.”
In March, Republican Commissioner Elizabeth Ann Doody Gorman introduced legislation that would require potential employees to declare any relatives who already have county positions paying at least $50,000. Gorman, who joined the board in December, doesn’t believe the county has a problem with employing the family members of upper-level officials, but feels any ties should be publicly acknowledged. “Nobody likes surprises,” she said.
Her legislation was sent to the Finance Committee, where it has remained. This committee handled the legislation because it includes all the board members, ensuring input from everyone, Gorman said.
Stroger dismissed those who complain the county is rife with patronage workers, saying people always criticize elected leaders. A lot of people approach him about jobs, he said, and he looks into their backgrounds. He hires those he likes and trusts. “I found that they had the qualifications and the loyalty. –¦ And how I judge loyalty is what other people tell me who have had dealings with these people.”
He said it is his privilege to appoint people he trusts, as it is with the president of the United States and the governor of Illinois. “You don’t think I’m going to come and find somebody who is anti-John Stroger to be in a leadership role for me, do you?” he said.
Hiroko Abe, Denise R. Avant, Ryan McFarland and Meredith Voegtle helped research this article.