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Stroger says positive moves don't make news

Monday, March 31, 2008
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

Depending on your point of view, a recent spate of stories on Cook County government either demonstrates that President Todd Stroger is not an efficient steward of the public's tax dollars, or they prove the media are out to get him.

The first perception comes from a good-government group. The second from, well, Todd Stroger.

The chasm in perception between the two sides began Feb. 29 with the first of a series of stories that reflected poorly on the county. They include:

Feb. 29: The 1 percentage-point increase in the sales tax, supported by Stroger, passes, increasing the county's $3.2 billion budget by another $426 million. The increase gave Chicago the highest big-city sales tax in the country, at 10.25 percent.

March 20: The Daily Herald reports that Stroger cabinet member Bruce Washington, of the Capital Development and Policy Department, showed up at the trial of Antoin "Tony" Rezko to lend support to the family and sit with Rita Rezko, herself a county employee, during the trial. Rezko is accused of using his influence with government officials on various levels of government to extort bribes and kickbacks.

March 24: The Chicago Sun-Times reports that Stroger's cousin county Chief Financial Officer Donna Dunnings received a 12 percent salary increase while other county employees got only cost-of-living increases. Dunnings and Stroger point out that Dunning had voluntarily never boosted her pay a year ago when she was promoted to that position from budget director. She had declined the pay increase to help out the county, then in a $500 million deficit. County spokesman Gene Mullins says Dunnings simply took the pay increase she had forgone for a year.

March 25: Fox 32 WFLD-TV reports that Dorothy Brown, the Cook County Circuit Court clerk, is chauffeured to and from work by a $63,000-a-year employee. Brown said the employee is a bodyguard, although he is listed as a "systems analyst" in the budget. Via e-mail, a Brown employee said the office employs three people within its Investigations Department that alternate in providing security for Brown. Their other duties include performing investigations into employee complaints, and providing on-site security in the Executive Office and other departments.

Brown said she needs a bodyguard because she has received death threats. Brown, it is important to note, is not a Stroger employee. She is a separately elected official, but her budget is approved by the Cook County Board.

March 25: The county announces that it will seek committee approval April 8 for a $2.1 million no-bid contract for WMA Consulting Engineers to repair and replace clean-steam piping at John H. Stroger Hospital. The firm has given Todd Stroger $3,500 in campaign donations. It gave more than $20,000 to John Stroger, Todd Stroger's late father, county board members and relatives of county board members. Although county spokesman Mullins was called Thursday about the contract, he still could not say Friday afternoon whether the proposal was the lowest the county received for the job.

Whatever attention these events are attracting from the media, they also apparently are striking chords with the public.

"We have been inundated with calls this week, and people are mad," said Dan Sprehe, an investigator for the Better Government Association. "People are really mad. We have gotten so many calls from people who are beside themselves saying, 'How can these people get away with this?' "

Todd Stroger said Friday he's been inundated too -- with people stopping him at the health club and in the grocery store to ask him why the media has such an ax to grind against him.

"Because Donna is related to me, we're taking a hit," said Stroger. "How many times can you say that she's (my cousin)? She's been the CFO for at least a year now. Is she doing a good job (or) is she doing a bad job? That's never become the story."

Stroger says she's doing a good job, and even Stroger critic Commissioner Mike Quigley publicly acknowledged her work ethic this week.

On Brown and Washington, the president was similarly combative, refusing to criticize either of them. Washington was supporting a friend on his own time, and Brown is a single woman who needs protection, he said.

Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, was unmoved. He recalled that Stroger ran on a platform of reforming government and reducing the payroll to 22,000 people. This year's budget will add 1,100 after cutting about 800 the year before. It remains well above 23,000.

"What it shows is whatever President Stroger said in 2006, if you didn't know it then, you know it now: It was merely sloganeering for election time with no intent to follow through," said Stewart.

Stroger and Mullins point to several achievements. The county's hospitals and clinics will be turned over to an independent governance board in the hopes of improving bill collections and service. The board meets today to select a search firm to look for a new inspector general. And, said Mullins, the county is starting a cable television program to highlight county achievements.

Stewart is skeptical of the hospital governance move, pointing out it is a temporary measure due to expire in three years.

"And let me see my calendar: 2011. What happens in 2010? An election. I think it's fairly obvious why it runs out then," he said. "Bureaucracies that don't want to change know that there's an expiration date on those reforms."

Nonetheless, Stroger stands by his assertion that his whole image is the result of a media conspiracy led by the Sun-Times, but joined in by other papers, the Daily Herald included. The negative is always reported, while the positive goes uncovered, he said.

"Nobody (reporters) cares what happens in county government, so people don't get the story of what's going on in the county. All they get is the soap opera. And with the soap opera, we'll always lose," Stroger said.

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