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Laid-off Cook County Jail commanders sue Sheriff Dart, allege retaliation over union effort

Thursday, March 01, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Schmadeke

Seventeen former Cook County Jail commanders laid off amid budget cuts late last year are suing onetime boss Sheriff Tom Dart and other county leaders, alleging the firings were retaliation for trying to start a union.

The commanders, who filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on Thursday, also allege Dart spared his political allies in the office and kept some 200 appointed directors — including a director of acupuncture for detainees and director of cable television at the jail — while eliminating longtime leaders in public safety roles.

“These appointed positions are not only unnecessary, bloated, and financially draining of the limited resources of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, but are non-essential, non-merit rank positions that do not serve and protect the citizens of Cook County,” the lawsuit alleges. The commanders see their jobs as essential, running the various divisions of the sprawling Cook County Jail complex on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Dart in turn Thursday laid the blame for the layoffs at the feet of Toni Preckwinkle and the Cook County Board, both of whom are also being sued by the commanders.

“This lawsuit is the direct result of the dramatic and unreasonable budget cuts imposed by the County Board President on our office,” Dart’s office said in a statement. “The scope of the cuts — almost $60 million dollars — evidenced a gross misunderstanding of the public safety work and mission of the Sheriff’s Office. Prior to these forced cuts being implemented, the Sheriff’s Office proposed several operational and organizational changes to County government to maximize county efficiencies and resources that would limit layoffs and job loss.

“The County responded by rejecting our proposals and demanded people and salaries be cut. In addition they criticized our office as having too many layers of supervision and demanded we cut supervisors. We were forced to lay off more than 85 individuals and pledged to return those impacted as positions became available through attrition and as budgetary and operational factors allowed.”

Becky Schlikerman, a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle, didn’t comment on the lawsuit, but in an emailed statement fired back at Dart: “The Sheriff is wrong ... in his specific characterizations of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget process. The president and the board of commissioners attempted to work collaboratively with each of the county’s 11 separately elected officials to put forward a responsible, balanced budget, as is our obligation.”

Schlikerman also noted that “some of the preliminary proposals submitted by the sheriff’s office did not achieve the required savings needed” but that cuts had to be made countywide to craft the spending plan — one that was unanimously approved by the 17 county commissioners.

The commanders say their ouster was payback for trying to form their own union in 2013; the effort was challenged in court and in August, a judge ruled that the high-level officers, who were not represented by a union, could be included in a new bargaining unit. But three months later, the commanders were told they were being laid off, according to the lawsuit.

State law requires the Sheriff’s Merit Board — an entity run by Dart appointees — to hire staffers and fire or discipline them for cause, but the board was circumvented illegally, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the commanders be reinstated to their positions with back pay.

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @SteveSchmadeke



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