Digging out of a hellhole
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Bobbie Steele wasted no time stenciling her name and new title onto the door of the Cook County president's office in downtown Chicago Tuesday. Minutes after her inaugural gala and speech, Steele's name gleamed from Suite 537.
Steele also wasted no time in naming a new leader for the county's chaotic juvenile jail. That's J.W. Fairman, who is the county's public safety coordinator. Steele first met him 50 years ago, when she was his baby-sitter.
So Steele has shown she can move quickly to shake up the moribund county government. A day before her inauguration, she forced out the old, ineffective head of the juvenile center, Jerry Robinson.
Good. She and Fairman need to get rid of the rest of the leadership at the juvenile center, which helped create the terrible mess there. That means immediately removing all three assistant superintendents and then moving down to other administrators.
Fairman has a lot to prove in this job, because he doesn't come to it with a gleaming record. Fairman served a short stint as interim superintendent of the juvenile center two years ago, but he spent little time there. He attempted to oversee the Southwest Side center from his downtown office. It showed. He cut a staggering overtime budget, but conditions at the center spiraled out of control.
Fairman was once head of the Cook County Jail. He was credited with improving conditions there, but he quit abruptly in 1996 after an internal investigation conducted by the Cook County sheriff's office raised questions about alleged financial mismanagement and double-billing for travel expenses. (No charges were filed.) Fairman was asked Tuesday about the 1996 investigation. His response, amid clinks of inaugural champagne glasses and long tables of crudites: "If I took any money, do you think I'd be standing here today?"
Fairman does bring two significant advantages to his new job. One, he is eager to do well--you might say to redeem himself. Two, he knows what the problems are and who the problems are. He spent months defending the juvenile center's practices in federal court, but now he's a critic of the place.
Aside from a swift management sweep, Fairman's agenda should include some straightforward measures. Clean up the facility. Keep suspect employees away from children as incidents of abuse are investigated. Provide the basics: Kids can't even count on having enough underwear for the week.
Fairman should also look into whatever happened to the promise to run criminal background checks on employees at the facility. The Tribune editorial board last summer found that at least 7 percent of the center's roughly 480 employees had been convicted of crimes. John Stroger's chief of staff, James Whigham, said last fall he was running those checks, but a year later only a few employees have been fired. (And one already has been hired back, according to sources at the facility.)
There's a lot to do, and interim President Steele doesn't have a lot of time to do it. She and Fairman have a tight deadline, but they also have the chance to create an impressive legacy by doing right by children.