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State lawmaker to take over troubled Stroger job training program

Thursday, June 03, 2010
Chicago Tribune
by Ray Long and Hal Dardick

SPRINGFIELD --- Veteran state Rep. Art Turner has accepted a position overseeing a troubled Cook County job training program, but he’ll keep his spot in Springfield for at least a little while longer.

Turner, 59, who lost a bid for lieutenant governor to Scott Lee Cohen, said he would start the new position at the President's Office of Employment and Training on June 21. Turner said he will remain a state representative a few months longer, possibly through the veto session as the state wrestles with a major budget crisis.

Turner said outgoing County Board President Todd Stroger contacted him about the county job, which will pay up to $110,000 a year, up from his legislative salary of $87,627. The pay raise also will boost his state pension because he is staying in a government position. Turner said he will be eligible for a pension of 85 percent of the $110,000 pay upon retirement.

But Stroger won't be board president much longer, having lost the February Democratic primary to Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago's 4th Ward alderman. Turner said he has begun reaching out to county commissioners and plans to meet with Preckwinkle.

Turner said he is still gathering all of the facts about the problems with the job-training program, which has had to return millions of dollars in federal funds. But he said he will try to fix the program because job assistance is needed in this economy today.

“I don’t claim to be a savior, but I will work hard,” Turner said. “I can pull people together and hopefully resolve issues. I have a record that proves I have the ability to work with all people, both sides of the aisle.”

The program had to return $8.4 million in improperly spent federal funds between 2003 and 2008, according to a statement this week by Warren Ribley, director of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Another $1.1 million in funding to train disadvantaged youth this summer is at risk, and POET has failed to spend $14.5 million in funds since 2008. More than 13,000 people in the south and west suburbs are not getting job training as a result, Ribley wrote.

Commissioner Timothy Schneider, R-Streamwood, said that POET also has spent $2.8 million in local tax dollars that would have come out of federal funding if the program had been properly run. “That leaves county taxpayers on the hook for this money, and that’s not right,” he said.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, was miffed that Stroger had not informed the board, which held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss POET’s woes, of Turner’s appointment.

Nevertheless, he spoke highly of Turner, with whom he has served on the board of  job development program. “I think he’s a really good person, and I think it could help,” he said of Turner’s appointment.

Stroger’s administration  has repeatedly said the program’s problems can be blamed on the state, which is responsible for meting out federal job-training funds. But three community college presidents have cast blame on the county, which has had a long and troubled history running the agency.

“Given our substantial and ongoing concerns, the state is reviewing all options available to us under federal regulations,” Marcelyn Love, spokeswoman for DCEO, said earlier this week. “These options include taking control of the Cook County workforce area for an interim period to address these issues with an eventual goal of returning program administration back to the County.”

Two efforts to work out a reorganization with Stroger’s administration had failed, Love said, adding that the agency was placed  on “high-risk status” in 2005.

Turner said he will not be paid on the county's dime when he goes to Springfield on legislative business.

Turner’s son, Art Turner Jr., won the Democratic primary to replace his father and is expected to replace his father in the state lawmaker’s West Side district. He could be appointed to replace his father if the elder Turner steps down before his term expires in January.

However, the younger Turner is now studying for his bar exam and needs to focus on that before he gets absorbed with the legislative issues, the father said.

Rep. Turner has long been a champion of the poor, education and social justice, having pressed to abolish the death penalty in Illinois. He campaigned to become Gov. Pat Quinn's replacement after Cohen stepped down from the Democratic ticket, but Quinn chose Sheila Simon instead.


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