Her first three months as Cook County's watchdog against political hiring have been an eye-opening experience for Mary Robinson.
Her mission is to help the county get to a point where
she and her office are no longer needed, but she's quickly seen that
the county's entrenched tradition of patronage hiring is not easily
dislodged. In an interview with the Daily Herald editorial board
Tuesday, she said the problem is no one county official's doing, but
the effect of a system in which too few people take seriously the call
to change the way hiring is done.
For example, to get around the court-ordered Shakman
ban on political hiring, she's found, some county supervisors have gone
so far as to adapt job descriptions to the unique backgrounds of
favored job applicants or coached applicants in how to answer difficult
interview questions - a practice monitors have identified when they've
seen applicants responding to an interview question with an answer that
is correct not for that question but for another in the interview.
"It's not uncommon to hear county employees guffaw when
they hear Shakman -- 'Oh yeah!' -- as if nothing's being done,"
Robinson said. "It feels like the culture that political hiring is the
norm ... There's a lot of not taking it seriously and some intentional
perversion (of the rules)."
Robinson assumed the court-appointed position as
compliance monitor in March following the resignation of Julia Nowicki,
who left after two years, calling the county's slow pace of compliance
Robinson said she will recommend ways to change the
county's patronage culture when she issues her first report at the end
of this month.
The Shakman decree is a federal court order that bans
various Cook County agencies and the city of Chicago from letting
politics influence hiring and firing. About 500 management positions in
the county are exempt from the decree out of 14,000 jobs.
Despite the pervasive cynicism, Robinson sees signs of
progress -- particularly in the county health system, which was
recently made independent from the county board. CEO William Foley, she
said, plans to eliminate exemptions and extend the patronage ban to all
160 previously political positions in the health system.
Keeping the health system independent will be a
critical component of a system that ultimately brings the county into
compliance with Shakman, she said.
Cook County also has purchased electronic software to
create an online application system that can help combat political
hiring, but to make it effective, the county must make its job
descriptions more uniform, Robinson said, so supervisors can't easily
rig an opening to fit a particular candidate.
Currently, the county, the city of Chicago and the
sheriff's department have compliance monitors like Robinson to watchdog
hiring and firing. Other elected county offices, like the clerk, court
clerk, treasurer and recorder, will get similar guardians when they
reach agreement in court on how to proceed, Shakman attorney Roger
Robinson, the former administrator of the state
disciplinary commission for attorneys, is nearing agreement with the
county on a new hiring plan.
Ultimately, she said, voters must elect candidates who
are committed to ending the dependence on patronage workers to keep
them in office.
"It's really up to the voters," Robinson said. "If voters want to pay attention, they can change this."