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In the Public Interest

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jul 25, 2007 1:00PM

There's no love lost here between Chicagoist and Cook County government. In fact, not only has Todd Stroger (as well as the other comedians that pass for "Commissioners" on the county board) been a target for our anger, frustration, and disappointment, they've been fodder for our ridicule and a symbol of what's wrong with local government here.

Looking back at the news from last week, we've been following the story of Sally Lemke, the nurse practitioner that the Visiting Nurse Association Foundation named nurse of the year. Lemke was notified shortly after receiving her award that the county would be laying her off as part of cost-cutting measures imposed by the county board.

2007_7_public_health.jpgLemke, who worked at the Austin Health Center in Oak Park, started a a county program for at-risk pregnant mothers on the West Side. She came to Cook County after an impressive career working in grass-roots, community-based health care. Predictably, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger blamed union rules, rather than bureaucracy and patronage, for the need to cut her position. Not surprisingly, Lemke turned down an offer to stay with the county as a floor nurse, a job that requires less skill, experience, education and discretion than she possesses. A day after the Sun-Times broke the story, it reported that she was swamped with job offers, including a position with the State of Illinois offered by none other than the hairpiece-in-charge, Rod Blagojevich. "I'll look to carry on the spirit we have here somewhere else," she told the paper after speaking with Blago.

Kicking around the Toddler and his cronies would normally come here in this post; a rehash of his "Friends and Family Plan" that has seen plum contracts go to connected businesses, and high-paying jobs going to friends and relatives. But eliminating the architect of a community program that delivers prenatal care to at-risk mothers in an impoverished and economically isolated part of the county deserves deeper analysis than just patronage. When a health care system that has historically been part of one of the best hospital systems in the state begins to fail to serve its constituents, chasing off talented practitioners who could easily take their skills and talents elsewhere for far more money, something is seriously wrong with our social safety net.

Todd Stroger's pat answer — that cutbacks like this are the fault of professional organizations that are organized and governed by the very people who have taken an oath to serve, and who have made the financial sacrifices necessary to carry out that mission — represents a failure of leadership. That failure, of course, is no surprise to us. We've come to expect as much from the like of the Stroger gang. What is most disturbing is that an opportunity to do what government can do best (conceive, finance and execute a program that serves the best interests of the community as a whole) has been lost. Even if Sally Lemke finds work with the state (which has a position for her even in the midst of a political crisis of record caliber), the greater tragedy isn't in Lemke's dismissal, it's in the homes and neighborhoods of poor and disconnected mothers and children in Cook County. And that tragedy impacts all of us.

Image via Rochester General Hospital.