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Board has right to replace Stroger

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

The Cook County Board could, if it mustered the political will, force ailing President John Stroger from office for "inability to act," according to a 19-page legal opinion issued Monday by the board's attorney.
Board attorneys and members have said previously they could do nothing unless Stroger, who has not been seen publicly since his stroke March 14, stepped aside.
"For me, the crux of this is the board does have the power," said Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), who requested the opinion. "But the majority of the board does not want to (act)."
There are two proposals regarding Stroger's absence on the agenda for today's meeting, and a third proposal might be added as a new item.
Commissioners might take no action today, instead letting Stroger's family announce their intentions in July, as promised. But commissioners say anything is possible given the amount of political maneuvering in the past few weeks.
"So much information has been swirling around ... you don't know how things are going to shake out," said Commissioner Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago).
Steele held a campaign-style rally last week, but said Monday she has no interest in "taking Stroger's job away from him."
The board meets July 12 and then goes on break until September.
"Since we've waited until almost July, 10 more days is not going to hurt us," Steele said. "I hope the family will deliver a decision by then."
A proposal by Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) creates an "interim president" position. Stroger could hand off power temporarily, keep his pay and benefits, and get power back when he's healed.
Suffredin said he'll defer his proposal unless he has the votes to pass it.
Although his proposal was soundly rejected when the board met two week ago, Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside) said he will re-introduce a plan that calls for a hearing with witnesses testifying under subpoena about Stroger's condition.
Peraica argued it was necessary because Stroger's staff and family spokesmen have been insisting the president is recovering and remains in charge of the county, while the Daily Southtown and other media have reported he remains weak.
Commissioners said at the last meeting the board didn't have the authority to hold any investigative hearing.
But the new opinion, written by Patrick Driscoll and Elizabeth Reidy, the top two lawyers of the state's attorney's civil actions bureau, says the board can do a lot under the home rule powers granted by the state.
The board can declare the office of the president vacant if the president dies, resigns, is removed from office for legal reasons, or "other inability to act."
There's little legal precedent for deciding what "inability to act" means, the opinion says.
Absent a ruling from a judge, "the board, sitting as a whole, may determine whether the facts occasioning a vacancy exist, even where those facts are disputed," the opinion says. "The board must afford the president reasonable notice ... (and) an opportunity to object."
In a footnote, the lawyers say the board could issue subpoenas for evidence and to compel witnesses, such as Stroger's family or doctors, to testify before the board.
The board could also take Stroger to court, as the commissioners are the only ones with legal standing to challenge his right to hold office, the opinion says.
"It would be big-time, major litigation that could drag until it doesn't matter," Quigley said. "I can't tell you how the board is going to react to this."
Commissioner Earlean Collins may also add a third proposal to the mix, one that would expand the powers of the existing president pro tem, Commissioner Mario Moreno (D-Chicago).
Moreno's only role now is to run the meetings in Stroger's absence, but Collins measure would let him take over all the executive functions of the office, such setting the budget and negotiating with unions.
Budget figures released Monday show the county's revenues are now $38 million behind budget projections, up from $16 million behind two months ago.

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