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Playing hardball at the jail

Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Chicago Tribune
Editorial

We'll spare you most of the details because they are about as convoluted as spaghetti. But the bottom line in the dispute over who will run the Cook County Jail is this: Sheriff Michael Sheahan should be able to select his own person for the job.

Sheahan wants Callie Baird, a former public defender and head of the Chicago Police Department's Office of Professional Standards. She was appointed to the jail post by Sheahan last year.

Were it all that simple. State law gives the five-member Cook County Board of Corrections the authority to interview, select and refer to the sheriff three candidates for the County Jail job. He is supposed to choose one of those finalists.

Baird was not a finalist. But Sheahan chose her anyway, arguing that the board's role was merely advisory. A group led by Rev. Harold Bailey, chairman of the board, sued to have her removed. Cook County Circuit Judge Martin Agran ruled on Oct. 27 that Baird must leave the job because Sheahan's appointment violated the law. The clock ran out for Baird on Friday. She moved to another job at the jail.

Dissatisfied with this turn of events, Sheahan moved to replace Bailey on the Corrections Board with community activist Munir Muhammad. On Tuesday, the Cook County Board approved the switch. The change in membership is expected to result in the belated nomination of Baird as executive director of the jail.

Now that you have a taste of the legal and political maneuvering, here is our verdict.

The Cook County Board acted properly by making a switch on the Corrections Board; after all, Bailey's term expired in 1997. He should drop his threats to challenge the move in court.

Sheahan tried to do a little extra-legal strong-arming by appointing Baird without the approval of the board, and he was properly pinned back by Agran. The Corrections Board has an important job to do--provide independent, civilian oversight of the operations of the jail. We hope that Munir Muhammad and other board members take that job to heart.

But on the matter of who runs the jail, great weight should be given to the preference of the sheriff. Responsibility--credit and blame--for the operation of the jail falls on Sheahan's shoulders, and he should have a jail director in whom he has confidence. That's Callie Baird.



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