Wallets of pols' pals are greenest things in preserves
Sunday, December 07, 2003
Is the mission of the Cook County Forest Preserves "to hold and preserve land" in its natural state for future generations? Or to hold and preserve jobs for politicians?
A Sun-Times analysis of the Forest Preserve payroll finds most top-paying jobs -- $80,000 and higher -- have been awarded to politicians and the politically connected, not to experts in forestry or natural resource management.
Three months ago, County Board President John Stroger hired Pam Munizzi -- a former state legislator and member of Commissioner John Daley's 11th Ward Democratic Organization --to be his $104,000-a-year liaison to the Forest Preserves. Rank-and-file workers asked why Stroger needed "another" liaison when he already had Frank Damato as intergovernmental affairs director.
That job was created for Damato when he lost his seat on the Cook County Board, which he got after he lost his seat as 37th Ward alderman in 1986. New commissioners on the board ask what Damato does for $81,000 a year other than stand to Stroger's right through Forest Preserve meetings lasting up to five hours, laughing at Stroger's jokes and smirking at opposition comments.
New commissioners call him "The Ed McMahon of Cook County Government."
Stroger chuckled at that and said, "I didn't even know he was laughing at my jokes." He said Munizzi and Damato serve distinct roles: Damato meets with suburban mayors to handle Forest Preserve issues while Munizzi, paid from the county budget, serves as Stroger's liaison to the district and also handles some non-Forest Preserve issues for Stroger.
The fourth-highest-paid Forest Preserve employee is Laura Lechowicz-Felicione, daughter of former county Commissioner Ted Lechowicz and a former appellate prosecutor.
Stroger named Patricia "P.J." Cullerton, Democratic committeewoman of the Northwest Side 38th Ward, as executive assistant to the superintendent. Cullerton's father was an alderman. Her family has been in local politics for three generations. She holds a master's degree in public service from DePaul University and was director of technical review for the Cook County assessor.
For purchasing agent, Stroger a year ago promoted Carmen Triche, a member of his 8th Ward Democratic Organization. Stroger's son Todd earlier had to cancel a $1,000 legislative scholarship for Triche to attend graduate school after embarrassing newspaper articles about Triche being paid $65,000 a year by the county as a deputy purchasing agent. She holds a master's degree in business administration from UIC.
In her new position, Triche is paid $90,000, as are Cullerton and Lechowicz-Felicione.
Stroger has resisted calls from new commissioners to get rid of some highly paid managers and hire back lower-paid workers who maintain the preserves. The district laid off 96 low-level workers a year ago because of a $12 million deficit commissioners say was caused by the managers.
Stroger has also resisted calls to seek forestry experts from around the country to bring outside ideas into the preserves.
"You'd get qualified people from all over the country who'd move here to work for the Forest Preserves," said board member Michael Quigley.
The Forest Preserves' sister agency, Brookfield Zoo, had an opening for director this year. The nonprofit's independent governing board, the Chicago Zoological Society, launched a national search and settled on Dr. Stuart Strahl, founding president and CEO of Audubon of Florida where he had helped lead the Everglades restoration.
Instead, the Forest Preserves over the years has hired political loyalists at the lower ranks and ex-elected officials at the higher ranks. Use of Forest Preserve property for private concerns was tolerated. One official was suspended a few months ago for attaching a Forest Preserve hitch to his daughter's car to haul her jet ski.
Forest Preserve brass have donated $36,000 to Stroger or his 8th Ward Democratic Organization or his son Todd's campaigns for state legislature or alderman in recent years and even more to their home ward organizations.
Forest Preserve officials resent questions about their political connections. The same political family tree could be drawn for any department in Cook County, the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois or any private company, they argue.
With only 500 employees compared with the county's 27,000, and a $40 million budget compared with the county's $3 billion budget, the Forest Preserve traditionally got little scrutiny. But county residents love the forest preserves. They make 40 million visits a year. They see firsthand the litter, broken glass and smeared and soiled bathrooms.
County Board members will vote on the Forest Preserve budget Wednesday, the day after voting on the county's budget. A proposed 1.35 percent hike in the Forest Preserve property tax would add 32 cents a year to the property tax bill for a $150,000 home in Cook County.
"The payroll is loaded with highly paid political hacks," said Commissioner Forest Claypool. "All these highly paid bureaucrats are tying up millions of dollars that could be used to clean up the forest preserves for the families and kids who use them. There's not enough resources on the ground. They fired the Indians and kept all the chiefs because the chiefs are political."
Some of that has begun to change in recent years as unflattering articles and the election of new commissioners forced Stroger to hire a new interim and then permanent superintendent -- both of them coming to office with orders to "kick butt" and make even clouted workers earn their pay. Hardworking rank-and-file employees say they love to see new Supt. Steve Bylina show up unannounced at county facilities to see whether work is being done.
But the changes aren't coming fast enough, they say. And upper management still is dominated by the political class.
Two Forest Preserve police employees have been charged so far in a payroll fraud scheme. Given the chance to name a new police chief, Stroger named the sheriff's officer assigned to be his bodyguard and driver: Richard Waszak. The position pays $82,000. Waszak's 30 years with the sheriff included a stint in special investigations.
Joe Bishop, active in state Democratic Chairman Mike Madigan's 13th Ward Organization, is an $80,000-a-year administrative assistant to the superintendent. Bishop holds a degree in business administration from the University of Dayton and held City of Chicago and state posts.
Vito Benigno, whose family has been active for generations in the 42nd Ward and whose brother is chief of staff for Secretary of State Jesse White, is the $79,000-a-year recreation superintendent. Benigno has a degree in personnel management and was director of support services for the American Hospital Association.
Friends of the Forest Preserves member Erma Tranter said at a budget hearing that since the Forest Preserve privatized its golf courses, it no longer needs a recreation department "top heavy with a recreation superintendent, an assistant recreation superintendent, a special events director, a recreation supervisor, a recreation specialist" and a 24-person staff for the district's one pool.
Until September, Stroger had one of his top 8th Ward precinct captains, Bill Granberry, as Forest Preserves maintenance director for $90,000 a year. The Sun-Times reported that the district kept a fleet of five special outhouses that came out just once a year for Stroger's annual picnic -- at a time when other commissioners were clamoring for cleaner outhouses. Granberry resigned. Stroger said he never knew about the outhouse arrangement.
To replace Granberry, Stroger chose a member of his ward organization, LeRoy Taylor, controversial with some co-workers because he was promoted to regional superintendent when longer-serving workers were laid off. Taylor, a retired deputy commissioner for the Chicago Water Department, has donated $2,145 to Stroger, the 8th Ward organization and Stroger's son's campaigns since 2001. Taylor also was given a coveted Forest Preserve home in Beverly.
Bylina said he and Stroger talked about Taylor replacing Granberry. Bylina insisted the appointment be on an "acting" basis until Taylor demonstrates he can handle the position.
"I think he's got the experience, the exposure, the knowledge of the preserves," Bylina said. Whether he gets the permanent job remains to be seen, he said.
"Oh, he'll get the permanent position," one mid-level Forest Preserve official said. "Stroger won't let that go to anyone but an 8th-Warder."
In 2001, another top 8th-Warder, Mezell Williams, resigned as the Forest Preserves' $99,000-a-year chief financial officer on the eve of a hearing where he was to explain how the district amassed a nearly $20 million deficit. The district raided land acquisition and maintenance funds for day-to-day operations. Stroger said the district had little choice because tax caps limited its ability to raise taxes or float bonds.
In a step many board members praised, Stroger replaced Williams with Barbara McKinzie, an accountant with a master's degree in business administration from Northwestern University.
This year, Erwin "Red" Weiner, 92, left his $75,000-a-year job as maintenance superintendent, which he had not served in for years. Though he showed up on the official payroll documents as receiving his regular checks, county officials said he was on "disability." He no longer shows up on the payroll.
When Stroger was sworn in to his third term as president last year, he asked Weiner, on stage with him, to stand and wave.
Remembering his friends
"Red introduced me to his longtime friend Sid Porter, who had a lot of money, some of which he shared with me," Stroger said to roars of laughter as he explained how Porter's donations helped him win his first race for president.
Weiner's friend Eugene Gallagher, 75, is a $71,000-a-year regional superintendent and has a Forest Preserve home.
"I work seven days a week," Gallagher said. He started as a lifeguard with the Chicago Park District at age 13 with Weiner and George Dunne in 1940, then joined the Forest Preserves in 1971. "I love it. I'm working for nothing. I could retire for 80 percent of my pay."
Many Forest Preserve managers could earn more in the private sector but prefer public service, they say.
Deputy Chief of the Forest Preserve Police Emmett Burke, son of Ald. Ed Burke, gets good reviews in his job. Similarly, engineering assistant Robert Janura, son of former Forest Preserves boss Art Janura, has raised no hackles.
When the superintendent's position came open this year, Stroger accepted resumes from around the country. But he settled on Bylina, a Chicagoan who had been active in Burke's 14th Ward Democratic Organization.
But Stroger may have struck a good balance between the political and professional with Bylina, who holds a degree in forestry from Southern Illinois University, a master's degree in public administration from DePaul University and a doctorate in public administration he earned long-distance from Florida's Nova University.
Bylina took office with respect from environmental groups he worked with as Chicago's forestry chief. They held a wine-and-cheese reception in his honor.
That did not stop them from taking aim at his first budget.
"The budget does not do nearly enough for land acquisition," Friends of the Forest Preserves President John Sheerin told commissioners. "It does not do enough to reduce management bloat and get more people into the field. It does not do enough to improve the financial condition of the district."
They question now whether Stroger will give Bylina the autonomy to hire professionals and fire nonperformers.
Stroger says he will.
Bylina says the push to sell tickets to Stroger's fund-raisers, which some workers say has proven the best ticket to advancement in the Forest Preserves, is over.
"It better not be done on working hours while I'm here," Bylina said. "Working hours are for the taxpayers of Cook County."
Some workers filed grievances saying that when layoffs came last year, more politically connected new hires were told to get what they called a pro forma certification for using pesticides. Then those favored workers were kept on while more senior employees without clout were laid off.
Why should political activism be a bar to government service, Stroger and his allies ask. Far from "hacks," his Forest Preserve managers boast stellar credentials, he said.
So what if Cullerton is a ward boss -- she's one of the first women to hold a high management post in the Forest Preserves and she had years of experience and the right academic degree for it. Cullerton hired Kim Feeney, the daughter of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Gloria Majewski. Feeney is a certified public accountant. Majewski shares ward office space with Cullerton as the district's $90,000-a-year comptroller.
They're 'good workers'
"People who are active politically, active in their communities, tend to be good workers," said County Board Finance Committee chairman and mayoral brother John Daley. "But just because someone is politically connected, in no way should they be protected if they're not doing their job."
When Stroger hires relatives, friends or political allies for county jobs, he makes sure they have credentials, he says. President Bush doesn't post national advertisements for people who want to be secretary of defense, Stroger said.
"You want to know something about them personally, their background," Stroger said. "I don't know how they vote. But I sure like to think if they're helping me running this administration, they'd be with me. I'm a Democrat. I'd like to think that they'd be a Democrat."
But if the patronage employees of the Forest Preserves do such a good job, why are the forest preserves a mess, the new commissioners ask. Why is there a $12 million deficit? Why is there litter in the woods? Why is there a supervisor to worker ratio of 1:1 in some areas?
Does Stroger see problems that still need fixing at the Forest Preserves?
At a Forest Preserve meeting Wednesday, Stroger said, "We have the best-run government among counties probably in the nation, and nobody in the nation is making a complaint about how we are running this county government. People want to emulate us."