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Steele plans to set county in right direction for next president

Friday, September 08, 2006
Chicago Defender
by Mema Ayi

In her first meeting as Cook County Board President, Bobbie Steele Thursday promised to get the city on sound footing.
Though her tenure will be brief, Steele (D-2nd) said she plans to create a blueprint for future administrations to create a more efficient county government.
"I've been hard at work to earn your confidence in my leadership and I look forward to what we can accomplish together," Steele told commissioners Thursday. "Start today mindful of your awesome responsibility."
Commissioners Wednesday began to tackle a looming $70 million budget deficit and the consolidation of county departments, as well as plans for the 2007 budget, which Steele said she hopes will be ready before she leaves office in December.
"I've met with every elected official to let them know they need to help," Steele said. "Let's look across the board at all of our departments in terms of bringing up revenue."
Steele will also face scandals related to county hiring before she took office.
The patronage chief for former Cook County Board President John Stroger was suspended this week pending an investigation into allegations that he encouraged staffers to change test scores for politically connected job applicants, officials said.
Gerald Nichols, 55, will continue to collect his annual salary of $114,000 while he is on administrative leave because she thought that was the appropriate thing to do, Steele said.
"We have to have evidence. Everybody is entitled to due process, but this is a step in the right direction," said Steele, who added that the county's human resources department said other people could be involved in the alleged scheme.
Before Steele reassigned him, Nichols was a special assistant to the president.
And to tackle the reason behind at least 1,300 county hires since Stroger's stroke in March, Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-12th) has called for the U.S. Attorney to look at county hiring. Hundreds of jobs were filled in the months between Stroger's stroke and the time Steele was elected by the county board in July - despite a hiring freeze.
"There is mounting evidence that many of the positions may have been filled illegally. The rate of hires accelerated and increased dramatically. Who had the authority to OK hires?" Claypool asked.
The Sheriff's Department and hospitals are notorious for filling positions with that have nothing to do with law enforcement or patient care, Claypool added.
Steele contends the employees added to the payroll during the period were necessary, but said her office is investigating all of the positions filled during that period and will take "appropriate" action if wrongdoing is found.
"There was no hiring frenzy that I know of that happened under (Stroger's) watch," Steele said.
Government waste was certainly on the minds of the county board as the State's Attorney's office explained why it was still paying more than $100,000 a month to Special Prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle, although the pair released its report on torture under former Chicago Police Lt. Jon Burge.
The special prosecutors are following up on complaints and subpoenas and have to make arrangements to store and file the documents they collected during the more than four-year investigation, said assistant state's attorney Pat Driscoll.
Others, including Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-16th) are looking for a resolution to the findings of the report, which has run the county about $7 million so far.
"We need to bring some finality to this," said Peraica, who is also running for county board president.
Driscoll was unwilling to entertain Peraica's call for a meeting of the board's legislative committee to ask further questions about the report and the special prosecutors.
"The report is out and there's nothing more to be done. It's over," Driscoll said.
But Commissioner Earlean Collins (D-1st) said it's not over yet. Collins said she plans to assemble a group of attorneys to find a resolution.
"I'm going to try to do something. There's nothing we can do about it? Tell that to 85 percent of the African Americans who already know about the unfairness of the justice system," Collins said. "Justice may be blind, but it's color-coded. Black people can no longer stand by idly be and allow report after report and investigation after investigation with no justice."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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