Patronage oversight ends for Cook County assessor’s office

Patronage oversight ends for Cook County assessor’s office

On Nov. 1 a federal judge decided to end decades-long patronage hiring oversight of the Cook County assessor’s office. Cronyism and patronage remain in Illinois, despite some government offices escaping federal court oversight.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi said his office deserved to be released from decades of federal oversight to prevent patronage hiring, and a federal judge agreed.

Both Kaegi and the appointed court monitor, Susan Feibus, argued the office has complied with hiring rules outlined in the Shakman decrees and oversight should end. A judge heard Kaegi’s case Nov. 1 at the Dirksen Federal Building and granted the motion to remove the decree.

Shakman decrees are named for attorney Michael Shakman, who sued in 1969 to end the longstanding practice of patronage hiring, public employees politicking on the job and political firing rampant throughout city, county and state government.

Shakman won his case and since 1972 the decrees and federal monitors have worked to prevent patronage. While Shakman agreed Kaegi’s office should be released from federal oversight, he objected when a U.S. appeals court Aug. 5 approved Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s bid to remove federal oversight of hiring practices in his office.

“In no way are we saying that the risk of unlawful political patronage no longer exists within Illinois. Of course it does: nobody is naive to the state’s embarrassing history,” U.S. Appellate Judge Michael Scudder wrote of the Pritzker decision.

 But the court ruled reforms by Pritzker and Gov. Bruce Rauner made federal court oversight unwarranted. The same was found for Kaegi’s office.

In 2012, the Cook County assessor’s office came under renewed supervision during former Assessor Joseph Berrios’s tenure. The federal monitor found consistent patterns of political hiring and disregard for Shakman reforms, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune.

A high-level aide in Berrios’ office wrote: “The general impression of the employees in the office was that employment actions were based on nepotism, favoritism, or politics.”

Monitoring hiring to prevent nepotism has come with a heavy cost for taxpayers: $4.7 million, according to a county report. Patronage hiring within the assessor’s office also led to decades of incorrect or unfair assessment practices, further hurting property owners in the city and county.

Kaegi ran against Berrios in 2018 on a platform of reforming the assessor’s office, but quickly came under fire after the election for not understanding the weight of Shakman rules. On Oct. 12, assessor office Shakman monitor Feibus joined the motion filing to end oversight.

Offices must create and demonstrate compliance with an employment plan to mitigate political hiring and that a culture or “practice of making employment decisions based on political factors” does not exist to exit a Shakman decree. They must also prove they have put measures in place to prevent reverting to old practices.

The city of Chicago in 2014 and Cook County in 2018, as well as offices under the Cook County sheriff’s office and the Forest Preserve District have exited such oversight, sometimes after several decades.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez also expected her office to exit oversight along with Kaegi’s on Nov. 1, but her office remained under a federal watchdog.

As the judge said, Shakman decrees may no longer be warranted in some cases, but Illinois is far from free of patronage. Court oversight might be expensive, but what are the hidden costs of patronage and machine politics?

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!