Clout is alive and kick­ing in Cook County Board of Re­view hir­ing, watch­dog finds

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY RACHEL HINTON, STAFF RE­PORTER rhin­ton@sun­ | @rrhin­ton

Nearly three-quar­ters of a cen­tury later, some pols ap­par­ently still “don’t want no­body no­body sent.”

At least that’s what a Cook County watch­dog is sug­gest­ing about the Cook County Board of Re­view, which cleans up the quin­tes­sen­tial ques­tion of clout on its ap­pli­ca­tion forms a tad, ask­ing job seek­ers, “Who rec­om­mended you to us?”

That hir­ing process helped pull in po­lit­i­cally con­nected work­ers, in­clud­ing the child of one com­mis­sioner’s law part­ner. And it en­tails invit­ing em­ploy­ees to get in­volved in the po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns of com­mis­sion­ers.

That’s what Cook County In­spec­tor Gen­eral Pa­trick Blan­chard’s re­view of the ob­scure of­fice found.

Who rec­om­mends a po­ten­tial em­ployee to the Board of Re­view could be a greater fac­tor in hir­ing de­ci­sions than ex­pe­ri­ence or other fac­tors, Blan­chard’s of­fice con­cluded.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice was ini­tially tipped off that the board “main­tains a cus­tom and prac­tice of re­liance on po­lit­i­cal fac­tors in mak­ing hir­ing de­ci­sions” in non-man­age­rial roles.

In the re­port, the in­spec­tor gen­eral found the board, which han­dles ap­peals of property as­sess­ments, has no for­mal hir­ing process, hired peo­ple “de­spite in­com­plete ap­pli­ca­tion ma­te­ri­als and lack of for­mal process,” and uses an ap­pli­ca­tion form that con­tains the ques­tion “who rec­om­mended you to us?”

Michael Shakman, whose half­cen­tury-old le­gal bat­tle to keep pol­i­tics out of hir­ing and the in­ter­nal af­fairs of county and city gov­ern­ment re­sulted in court de­crees bear­ing his name, said that’s not a com­mon ques­tion to ask job ap­pli­cants.

And “not only is it not com­mon — it’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” he said.

“Gov­ern­ment agen­cies are sup­posed to take peo­ple on the mer­its of their cre­den­tials and in­ter­views on a com­pet­i­tive ba­sis,” Shakman said. “This [re­port] tells you they’re not do­ing that.”

The Chicago ques­tion of who-you-know was im­mor­tal­ized by the late lib­eral lion Ab­ner Mikva, who fa­mously re­counted how his ef­forts to vol­un­teer for po­lit­i­cal work in 1948 were re­jected by a cigarchew­ing Chicago ward boss, who told him, “We don’t want no­body no­body sent.”

Smok­ing in public was long ago out­lawed in Chicago, but clout has been harder to stamp out.

At the Board of Re­view, many em­ploy­ees are also con­nected in some way to the three com­mis­sion­ers who over­see property as­sess­ment ap­peals. Job open­ings aren’t typ­i­cally posted on­line be­cause the of­fice op­er­ates un­der a “re­fer­ral ba­sis,” the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port reads in part.

One an­a­lyst in the of­fice is the child of a com­mis­sioner’s law part­ner. She works as a res­i­den­tial an­a­lyst de­spite hav­ing no prior ex­pe­ri­ence in the area, and is also de­scribed as a com­puter op­er­a­tor, even though she told the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s of­fice she’d “never per­formed any IT-re­lated work.”

The three elected com­mis­sion­ers run­ning the board are Repub­li­can Dan Pat­lak and Democrats Larry Rogers Jr. and Michael Cabonargi, who lost his bid for clerk of the Cook County Cir­cuit Court ear­lier this year.

Jobs aren’t posted on­line, there are no for­mal job de­scrip­tions and em­ploy­ees were in­vited to work on the com­mis­sion­ers’ po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns on their per­sonal time, the re­port con­cludes.

The de­tails in the re­port re­minded Shakman of the clout-heavy days of yore.

“What [this re­port] de­scribes is a full-blown, clas­sic, old-style pa­tron­age op­er­a­tion of the sort that I thought had been abol­ished by our ef­forts in the Shakman case over a num­ber of years,” Shakman said.

The Board of Re­view was never named as part of the suit Shakman filed seek­ing to cur­tail po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence in hir­ing prac­tices in gov­ern­ment agen­cies, but Blan­chard said gov­ern­ment agen­cies are “re­quired to ad­here to the prin­ci­ples upon which Shakman was filed, whether you’re a de­fen­dant or not.”

In a joint state­ment, the com­mis­sion­ers of the board of re­view said the agency is “op­er­at­ing at an un­prece­dented level of trans­parency, giv­ing home­own­ers ac­cess to the ap­peals sys­tem and en­sur­ing they fully un­der­stand the process to pay their fair share and not a penny more.”

“We’re proud of the work we’ve put into mak­ing the Board of Re­view more trans­par­ent and ac­count­able while staffing and re­tain­ing a qual­i­fied work­force that’s pro­cess­ing a record-break­ing num­ber of ap­peals, and we’re fully com­mit­ted to mak­ing sure that progress and our com­mit­ment to trans­parency con­tin­ues at all lev­els of the board,” the state­ment con­tin­ued.

Cabonargi said in a state­ment the board is al­ready im­ple­ment­ing some of Blan­chard’s rec­om­men­da­tions, which in­clude post­ing job open­ings on the web­site and writ­ing job de­scrip­tions.


MICHAEL SHAKMAN, speak­ing of a watch­dog’s re­port on the Cook County Board of Re­view


Cook County Board of Re­view Com­mis­sion­ers Dan Pat­lak (from left), Larry Rogers Jr. and Michael Cabonargi.

Michael Shakman in 1970 (left) and 2014

Pa­trick Blan­chard

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