More Clout Problems in Cook County

By Kevin Robinson in News on Dec 21, 2010 3:00PM

2010_12_preckwinkle.jpg Yesterday we took a look back at the salad days that were the Todd Stroger administration. No matter how much you loved or hated the guy, the fact of the matter is that corruption and clout in Cook County is now Board President Toni Preckwinkle's problem. And with her taking the helm in Cook County comes a new report by county Inspector General Patrick Blanchard that Cook County’s Highway Department is a patronage "dumping ground."

“The Highway Department has experienced substantial political patronage hiring and has been used as a ‘dumping ground’ for problematic employees,” according to Blanchard's report, which was sent to Preckwinkle and the 17 county commissioners. Blanchard praised construction staff for staying on top of the work that they do, filing progress reports and monitoring project performance. Unfortunately the same could not be said for management and administrative staff.

The notion that the county's highway department is rife with theft, absenteeism and administrators that don't do any work should come as no surprise to anyone that's read the news in the last year or so. What makes this report unique is that the inspector general has recommended an audit of the 350-person agency, a recommendation that Preckwinkle says she will undertake.

Unfortunately for Preckwinkle, problems in the county highway department aren't the only mess that she has to deal with. A recent settlement with county Forest Preserve District workers who were fired or denied promotions for political reasons will set Cook County back half a million dollars. "The claims brought ... involved primarily the manipulation of the hiring process to benefit lesser qualified but politically connected job candidates," wrote the hiring Compliance Administrator, Jan Carlson, in a report to the U.S. District Court, which is overseeing hiring compliance in Cook County. The report to the court comes as Preckwinkle announced a new team to lead the district. That team includes Mayor Daley's former planning and development chief, Arnold Randall as Forest Preserve Superintendent, and Mary Laraia, who will serve as his deputy. Randall also helped with Chicago's losing bid to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.

In a step to start getting all county employees on the same page with ethics compliance, Preckwinkle issued an executive order on Monday requiring all county employees to take an annual online ethics training course. She acknowledged that an online ethics training course wouldn't be enough to stop a long-standing culture of corruption in the county. “I think it’s a first step,” she told the Tribune. “It’s always helpful for people to know what the rules are, and this gives people more of an opportunity to know exactly that.”