For more than a half century government offices in Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois have been required to follow anti-patronage hiring practices under federal court rulings known as Shakman Decrees.
The rulings came after a lawsuit by Chicago activist attorney Michael Shakman. who wanted to end the political hiring and related corruption that was said to be the norm at all levels of government.
While Illinois still ranks as one of the most corrupt and compromised states every year, few would argue the changes that have been made under Shakman have been a significant improvement. But disputes over exactly how to comply with Shakman continue to this day and along with some confusion and frustration comes another problem: A big compliance bill for taxpayers to foot.
There are four offices currently under compliance monitoring in Illinois – the Governor’s office, The County Clerk, the Clerk of Circuit Courts and the County Assessor. Each month the monitors overseeing hiring and personnel policies file an invoice and they add up. The invoices are not immediately available, requiring a request under the Freedom of Information Act, but Chicago Reporter was able to obtain many of the invoices from the former Recorder of Deeds office and recent invoices from the County Clerk.
In 2019, its final year in existence, the Recorder of Deeds office paid more than $562,000 for monitoring services to oversee the human resources activity of a staff of slightly more than 100 employees. The Recorder of Deeds office was folded into the County Clerk’s office in December of 2019.
Karen Yarbrough, was the Recorder of Deeds and in 2018 was elected as the Cook County Clerk. Not long after being elected, legal action was brought against her office over complaints of unfair treatment of employees who believed they were being transferred around to different offices to make their jobs difficult and get them to resign. The office was put under Shakman monitoring.
Since compliance monitoring began in the Clerk’s office in spring of 2020, it has cost more than $382,000, or about $38,200 a month, for a staff of about 300. After comparatively small invoices the first two months, fees have risen considerably to more than $60,000 each in October and November and nearly $76,000 in December of 2020. The last five months have averaged more than $58,000.
The invoices are filed with a federal judge overseeing the case for approval.
And the fees to plaintiff’s attorneys, in-house monitors and other legal expenses aren’t the only cost. Not listed in the invoices are fees to attorney for the offices, and hours of additional time spent negotiating hiring guidelines and individual hires of employees.
But who is to blame for these costs that are picked up by the taxpayers?
Allies of office holders call the oversight selective, burdensome and sometimes picayune. And complaints about Shakman aren’t new, dating back to the first decree in 1972. Lionized reformer Mayor Harold Washington even complained about Shakman restrictions when he took office in 1983, noting entrenched bureaucrats who refused to implement his policies.
Shakman allows each government office a small number of political hires that come and go with each elected official. The assumption is some of the top leaders coming in with a new administration are needed to implement the policies on which the new office holder was elected.
But the majority of people in government employment can’t be hired and fired at the whim of a new office holder because not only does it lead to inefficient government, but it violates their 1st and 14th amendment rights.
County Clerk Yarbrough has been one of the most vocal critics of the oversight, but her office refused comment for this story. In early May, however, her office fought back against the court ruling, losing two appeals. In 2019 she called the effort to bring reform to her office “personal’’ and suggested race and gender were factors. Yarbrough is African American and Shakman is Caucasian.
But Shakman advocates disagree strenuously.
Currently the Cook County Clerk of Circuit Court office is under Shakman supervision and is led by Iris Martinez. The oversight was active during the term of Dorothy Brown, who did not run for re-election in 2020. Cook County was under Shakman from 2007 into Toni Preckwinkle’s tenure as Board President, but it was found in substantial compliance and released from oversight in 2018, in large part because of her leadership on the issue.
Previous government agencies that have been under Shakman monitoring and eventually released include the Chicago park district, Cook County Forest Preserve, and Cook County Sheriff.
“The reason the cost associated with (Yarbrough’s) office has been high is because she has a scorched earth approach,’’ said Hays. “The Clerk has fought every step of the way and these extra motions, appeals, hearings and related work add to the cost with expenses that don’t move the office toward the goal of complying with good hiring practices.’’
Michael Shakman, the man for whom the decree is named, said monitoring of the Clerk’s office was only ordered after a federal judge presided over a three-day trial and decided there was enough evidence to order the oversight.
Shakman first filed an anti-patronage lawsuit as a young attorney in 1969, and the first decree was issued in 1972. More than 50 years later he’s still behind the effort to fight patronage hiring and politically motivated job discrimination.
“The only conclusion is Karen Yarbrough would prefer to run a political patronage organization,’’ Shakman said. He noted that in a half century of resolving discriminatory hiring practices even aggressive, prickly figures like Mayors Daley and Emanuel didn’t take the matter personally.
The city was under Shakman monitoring from 2005 until it was found to be in substantial compliance and released in 2014.
The Governor’s office has been under Shakman monitoring since Rod Blagojevich’s tenure and different governors have had various levels of cooperation, according to Hays and Shakman. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office has filed a motion to be released from oversight, even though the monitors did not agree there was a “durable’’ remedy in place. A durable remedy means an office has changed discriminatory practices and implemented a proper and transparent employment policy.
A judgment on that motion is expected soon.
The Cook County Assessor’s Office saw monitors complaining about political firings, patronage hiring, and a lack of any interest in compliance during the tenure of Joe Berrios, who was also the Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. He had a history of hiring relatives, put his daughter on the Assessor’s payroll, and raised eyebrows – was well as an ethics investigation – for accepting political donations from the very same property tax attorneys who sought favor from his office.
While the office is poised to be freed from Shakman oversight, the road wasn’t free of obstacles for Fritz Kaegi, who defeated Berrios in 2018 in a reform campaign. Not long after election he ran afoul of monitors when his office asked to borrow staff from Cook County commissioners during a busy period.
Kaegi’s office “has not grasped the level of scrutiny’’ that comes with federal oversight, the monitor of the assessor’s office wrote at the time in late 2029. He’s not on an “effective path to end oversight.
Now, however, the assessor’s office has established a fair and professional hiring policy and will file a joint motion with the Hays in July asking for an end to the oversight. The plaintiff’s attorney will alert everyone involved in the case and post public notice for any objections, which can be brought to the court. Barring any objections upheld by the court the Assessor’s office could be out from under the monitor in October of this year.
“From the beginning of my time as assessor, my goal has been to correct the errors of the past. Achieving substantial compliance with Shakman is one means to that end. I think we’re very close on that score and achieving the objectives of Shakman oversight: restoring public confidence in government and building a culture based on equitable treatment, free of favoritism,”Kaegi said.
When it comes to the cost of making governmental offices comply with Shakman, advocates bring up the cost of not complying, of returning to a place where 40,000 jobs were all in the hands of elected officials who used them to entrench power. The cost of no-show jobs, inefficient workers and padded staff and payroll was estimated at tens of millions a year, hundreds of millions over the decades, Shakman said.
Adds David Orr, a Chicago political figure for five decades and who ran the County Clerk’s office from 1990-2018 without Shakman, “Things like Shakman are a very important part of good, efficient government, but even with oversight you can’t accomplish much if politicians don’t cooperate and want to engage in good, fair government.
“What it really comes down to: If you want better government you have to elect better people.’’