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Is city ready to be free of Shakman case?

**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY NOV. 15** In this photaken Nov. 4 2009 attorney Michael L. Shakman poses his office Chicago. Four

**ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, NOV. 15** In this photo taken Nov. 4, 2009, attorney Michael L. Shakman poses in his office in Chicago. Four decades ago, Shakman launched a lonely crusade to destroy Chicago's deeply entrenched political patronage system - the unwritten law that loaded the city payroll with thousands of the mayor's campaign workers. These days, he's still in court, the sworn and relentless enemy of the jobs-for-precinct captains system that for a century has been all but the lifeblood of Chicago politics. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: March 7, 2013 10:18AM

Every indication is that this is the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration will try to extricate the city once-and-for-all from its 43-year federal court entanglement known as the Shakman case.

“We sure hope so,” City Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton said Tuesday, just hours after the Cook County Forest Preserve District had shown the way forward by becoming the second Chicago area government body to be declared in compliance with Shakman court orders barring political considerations in employment.

U.S. Magistrate Sidney Schenkier dismissed the Forest Preserve District, a longtime patronage haven, as a defendant in the lawsuit first brought by attorney Michael Shakman in 1969.

That’s the path the city would now like to follow as well, freeing itself from the oversight — and cost — of an outside court-appointed monitor.

The question is whether the city has proven itself ready to take that step.

Patton would argue yes. He ticks off a checklist of steps the Emanuel administration has taken during the past two years to comply with Shakman, the last of which he expects to be completed in the next few months.

While it’s clear that the parties are closer to a resolution than ever, it sounds like they’re not there yet.

Shakman monitor Noelle Brennan, who wasn’t fully satisfied with the city’s progress when she issued her last public report in June, told me Tuesday that her office is “working on a significant report that will sum up where we believe the city is,” but she wouldn’t tip her hand on what it will say.

City Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, whose office now is responsible for providing oversight on Shakman, told me Tuesday that the Emanuel administration has made “great strides” in moving the city closer to Shakman compliance.

But, he added, “Work remains to be done and issues remain to be resolved.”

A probable sticking point is the ongoing dispute between the Emanuel administration and Ferguson over the extent of the IG’s investigative powers.

In a lawsuit that has reached the Illinois Supreme Court, Ferguson is contesting the city’s positions that his office must go through the mayor or the corporation counsel to enforce its subpoenas — and that the city can cite attorney-client privilege to withhold some documents and communications.

The case before the Supreme Court grew out of a Shakman-related investigation.

In the end, the only opinion that counts will be Schenkier, who has shown an interest in finally bringing the case to a conclusion.

But my own thought would be: Not quite yet.

Until the inspector general is satisfied that his office has all the powers it needs to provide effective oversight of city personnel practices going forward, I don’t see how anybody else can be.

Whether the Shakman case drags on or comes to an end, Chicago residents can rest assured the restrictions it has put in place against political hiring and firing will continue into the future. The court orders setting forth the rules of the road for city employment remain in effect.

Everybody understands the case shouldn’t go on forever, including Shakman himself.

“I have no interest in dragging this out,” he told me. “It shouldn’t have taken this long.”

The problem is creating a system to insure the city will continue to comply with those orders when it no longer has a federal judge looking over its shoulder.

After all, the historical track record isn’t very good.

Even though the first Shakman decree went into effect in 1972, it was just eight years ago that federal prosecutors exposed a hiring scandal in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration in which city officials were not only evading the patronage ban but also falsifying documents to cover their tracks.

Basically, the Daley team had led everyone to believe that it was abiding by Shakman, which turned out to be a big lie.

That’s what led to the appointment of Brennan in 2005. Even after that, the Daley administration dragged its feet on reforming the system.

By all accounts, Emanuel and his team have been much better.

But what we need is a system that can hold up from one administration to the next, no matter who holds the office of mayor or inspector general.

The old ways of patronage will continue to have a strong pull in this city. Nobody wants to be fooled again.

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