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Forest Preserve out of the woods on patronage — judge dismisses district from political hiring suit

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces dismissal Shakman litigatiagainst Forest Preserve District press conference Cook County Building Chicago Ill.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces the dismissal of the Shakman litigation against the Forest Preserve District at a press conference in the Cook County Building, Chicago, Ill., Tuesday, February 5, 2013. | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 7, 2013 6:34AM



Once known as a “dumping ground” for political patronage hires, the Cook County Forest Preserve District has cleaned up its act and has been dismissed from a long-standing lawsuit over illegal hiring practices, a federal judge announced this week.

U.S District Magistrate Sidney Schenkier on Monday declared the forest preserve was in “substantial compliance” with a consent decree from 2009 — the most recent of several court-ordered agreements to end illegal political hiring in the forest preserve. Those agreements stem from the 1969 lawsuit filed by Michael Shakman, who challenged local governments’ practice of patronage hiring and firing.

Taxpayers have forked over $4.7 million in litigation-related costs in the last four years alone in the forest preserve case, including paying a court-designated “compliance administrator” to comb hirings, firings and promotions, and work with forest preserve officials on a stringent hiring policy. Now that the judge has dismissed the case some of that money could down the line be folded into programming, officials said.

Toni Preckwinkle, who as County Board President is also president of the forest preserve board, said she pushed for reform after taking office in 2010 and hired Arnold Randall as superintendent of the agency.

“It’s no secret that the forest preserve district in particular was known as a dumping ground for county patronage hires,” Preckwinkle said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “That was unfair to the taxpayers who picked up the tab with property tax increases year after year, it was unfair to qualified applicants who never had the chance to interview for open positions. It was unfair to many good, hardworking employees who were denied promotions.”

She and Randall, who was also at the news conference, ticked off the changes made at the forest preserve, including an online-only job application system, better and updated job descriptions, and a first-ever employee performance review system.

Preckwinkle added: “We put policies and procedures in place that will make sure the corrupt practices of the past cannot and will not happen again.”

Jan Carlson, who as compliance administrator had to keep close tabs on who was landing on the forest preserve payroll, took a small swipe at Preckwinkle’s own favorite target — her predecessor Todd Stroger.

Carlson told reporters: “I was appointed in ’09. I won’t take the time to talk about the first two years, which was under the Stroger administration, except to say we didn’t get very far.”

“It was hard for me to believe … [but] prior to President Preckwinkle, when they’d hire a clerk they didn’t bother to find out if they knew how to type,” Carlson said, explaining that skills testing is now in place.

With the case over, Carlson is out of a job and now the forest preserve’s human resources office and in-house compliance administrator will handle policing hires in the forest preserve.

In making his decision this week, the judge agreed the forest preserve had instituted a series of policies and safeguards to prevent unlawful political hiring.

Back in 2010, Schenkier found Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office was in “substantial compliance” with the consent decree, with Dart’s office proclaiming it was the first government office dismissed in the Shakman suit.

Cook County government still remains under the consent decree, as does the city of Chicago.



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