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Preckwinkle cleans house on first day as Board president

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveils her name front door. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle unveils her name on the front door. | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

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Updated: December 7, 2010 4:08PM

Vowing it’s “a new day in Cook County,” newly minted Board President Toni Preckwinkle wielded a big ax Monday, sending dozens of staffers tied to her predecessor packing and setting a deadline of 2013 to cut an unpopular county sales tax hike.

And that was just her first day on the job.

“As I’ve traveled the county, a single theme has emerged from the residents of every region and every walk of life. That theme is a need for change, for a new day in Cook County,” Preckwinkle said Monday after being sworn in as the first woman elected County Board president.

Packing the County Board meeting room for the ceremony were dozens of elected officials, including Gov. Quinn, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and the man Preckwinkle defeated in the Democratic Primary, outgoing Board President Todd Stroger.

Preckwinkle walks into an office that has been plagued by controversy, from allegations of bid-rigging to a payroll rich with Stroger’s friends and family. The waste, critics claim, has been costly for the county. Indeed, she’s trying to erase an estimated $487 million budget hole as she crafts a $3 billion budget — the bulk of which is payroll for the roughly 23,000 employees staffing the county’s vast health and hospital system as well as the jail and courts.

Those shown the door Monday include an array of Stroger political appointees whose jobs may be going away as Preckwinkle consolidates a numbers of offices. They include William Moore, director of Planning and Development, and Bruce Washington, director of Capital Planning, both of whom head offices that will fall under a new Economic Development office. Also departing is David Ramos, director of Homeland Security.

More high-profile figures — Chris Geovanis and James Ramos, both of whom served as spokespersons for Stroger, are also out, according to multiple sources, including a Cook County commissioner who spoke with members of Preckwinkle’s administration.

Asked about the firings during a press conference, Preckwinkle said: “We have a list of about three dozen people whose resignations we’ll accept today.”

Those staffers are among the roughly 200 “at will” staffers who are exempt from a court order banning political consideration in hiring and firing. They are also considered part of a revolving door when a new board president takes office and wants her own department heads in place.

That said, Preckwinkle said she’s going to hire a “chief performance officer” to audit personnel, their pay and craft more stringent performance reviews to root out do-nothing employees.

“When I first declared my candidacy for the Cook County board, I would be stopped by residents and they would say, ‘You know I work for the county and I work hard, but there are people who read the newspaper all day or who spend their time on their personal cell phones,’ ” Preckwinkle told county commissioners and other elected leaders gathered in the board chambers after her swearing-in. “Needless to say, this isn’t a good idea. And this lack of accountability has eroded the legitimacy of Cook County government.”

Preckwinkle believes the audit, along with consolidating several offices, can steer money away from the payroll and into the savings needed to roll back what’s left of the unpopular penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike.

County commissioners slashed the hike by a half penny in the run-up to this year’s election. And she says that she’ll be able to roll back the other half incrementally: a quarter-cent in 2012 and the remaining quarter cent in 2013.

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