'Party's over,' Preckwinkle vows
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter email@example.com
Toni Preckwinkle listens to a question Wednesday, the day after she won election as Cook County Board president. She vows an end to many current practices.
No more fancy office furniture. No more hush-hush, no-bid government contracts -- that are illegal. And in the next four years, say goodbye to the county sales tax hike.
That's the message from Toni Preckwinkle as she prepares to take the reins of the Cook County Board. The board's president-elect is positioning herself as the anti-Todd Stroger, the lame-duck board president whose administration has been criticized -- and criminally investigated in one instance -- for many of the practices she plans to put an end to.
"The employment of friends and family and cronies who are minimally competent or just completely inappropriate hires is over,'' she said in a wide-ranging interview after her election victory Tuesday.
Preckwinkle, 63, of Hyde Park, also vowed that while there is a time and place for no-bid contracts, she will not stand for the ones that led to the arrest and public corruption charges against Carla Oglesby, Stroger's ousted deputy chief of staff. She allegedly steered contracts to public relations firms she ran as well as to her pals - all just under the $25,000 threshold requiring approval of Cook County commissioners.
"We're not going to do anything that deliberately skirts the rules - we're going to be taking a look at contracting," she said, adding: "There was deliberate effort, it seems to me, to circumvent the rules laid down by the Cook County Board. Presumably small no-bid contracts may be awarded, but . . . you would not be going to have these $24,999 contracts that skirt the rules."
She also said that taxpayer money won't be spent on "luxurious'' office furniture, a reference to the Stroger administration signing off on the purchase of $13,000 in office furniture for Stroger's childhood pal and chief spokesman Eugene Mullins, whose last day on the job was Friday.
"The party's over," Preckwinkle said, echoing a comment she made election night. "The idea that you can spend money, whether it's on no-bid contracts or luxurious office suite furniture -- that was part of the party.''
Preckwinkle is likely to enjoy a honeymoon period -- which one expert said was 100 days -- and in that time, she'll have to juggle delivering a $3 billion spending plan and close a projected $300 million budget gap along with political expectations that come fresh off the campaign trail: loyalists looking for jobs and the unions pushing back amid talks of layoffs.
Indeed, critics -- and quietly some commissioners -- have already been chattering about whether the Preckwinkle administration will give the unions special treatment for supporting her campaign.
The Service Employees International Union alone chipped in more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.
Preckwinkle said there are no sacred cows and that she has warned contributors that tough days lie ahead.
Preckwinkle says she believes across-the-board cuts of at least 10 percent are necessary, which would likely mean slashing some of the 22,000 employees who largely work in the county-funded local court system and jail, as well as health and hospital systems.
Preckwinkle said she likely will slash her $170,000-a-year paycheck by 10 percent.
An audit of the offices under the president, with about 2,000 employees, should help root out some of the do-nothing employees.
"We've discovered there are positions for which there are not job descriptions, so it's kind of hard to hold people accountable if they can argue they don't know what they're supposed to be doing,'' Preckwinkle said, noting that job descriptions and performance reviews will now become the norm.
The county's Highway Department -- which handles road maintenance for unincorporated Cook County -- is also expected to be in the cross hairs after repeated patronage scandals including Stroger's personal hire of a steakhouse busboy who ascended to a $61,000-a-year middle management job until he was arrested on domestic violence-related charges and fired.
"We've treated the Highway Department as a cash cow for too long. At one point, 90 percent of the money went for infrastructure and 10 percent went to the administration or to support the county generally. Now it's 60-40,'' she said.
The transition from 19-year veteran Chicago alderman -- under the iron grip of Mayor Daley -- to chief executive will require her to be a consensus-maker among the 17 county commissioners, including the four Republicans. Under Stroger, commissioners complained it was tough to get face time with Stroger.
So Preckwinkle will need at least nine commissioners to support her if she's going to slash what's left of Stroger's unpopular penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike in a few years.
Building consensus could be a challenge, as Preckwinkle's bookish nature and no-nonsense, even abrupt communication style at times have been described as off-putting. But she revealed a softer side on the campaign trail, at one point airing a sales tax repeal ad that showed Preckwinkle shaking hands with a penny-pinching Benjamin Franklin.
And Preckwinkle and her chief of staff, Kurt Summers Jr., who worked on Daley's 2016 Olympic bid, have begun to reach out to commissioners beyond John Daley, the mayor's brother, and longtime Preckwinkle friend Larry Suffredin, both Democrats on the board.
Reaching out is crucial, "especially at budget time, before commissioners create a new alliance and block her wishes,'' said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a onetime independent alderman.
Some fence-mending might also be necessary: Preckwinkle supported the opponents of Democratic Commissioners Deborah Sims and William Beavers in the February primary.
"I don't need nothing from her, so I don't see any kind of conflict,'' said Beavers, a former Chicago alderman who served with Preckwinkle.
Preckwinkle also supported the Democrat who ran and lost against Republican Liz Gorman. Gorman and Preckwinkle agreed last week they can put the election behind them.