Federal oversight of Cook County Assessor’s hiring to end; supervision tied to decades-old Shakman patronage lawsuit


For years, federal courts have kept watch over the Cook County Assessor’s office, making sure that workers weren’t hired for their political connections, and that job descriptions were clear. That oversight will end on Nov. 1, Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi announced Tuesday, meeting a key campaign pledge just before Election Day.

“As I met with my transition team in 2018, I set a clear goal: compliance with the core principles of Shakman by the end of our first term in office. And so here we are. We’ve now met that goal,” Kaegi told commissioners during his annual budget hearing Tuesday. Kaegi, who is up for re-election for a second term Nov. 8, ran in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform. The termination of that monitoring must still be approved by a judge.

“Shakman” oversight is named for Michael Shakman, the man who first sued to end the practice of Democratic patronage, under which city and county jobs were filled by faithful party members, and firings or promotions were based on election-time efforts. The suit was first filed in 1969, when patronage was essential to the Democratic Party’s machine. Shakman argued the practice unfairly prevented potential employees who didn’t do electoral work from getting government jobs.

Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez also told commissioners Tuesday she expected her office to exit court oversight in November. Court records indicate her office will file a motion to terminate on Tuesday. A spokesman says the filing will be made jointly with the plaintiffs in the case.

In recent years, the City of Chicago mayor’s office, as well as offices under the Cook County Board President, Sheriff’s office and the Forest Preserve District have exited such oversight, sometimes after several decades.

This latest round of monitoring of the Assessor’s office began in 2012 under Joseph Berrios, who was then also the head of the Cook County Democratic Party. It was just the latest Shakman chapter for the Assessor: the office had operated under various Shakman orders since 1972.

For years, the monitor found “a persistent pattern in Berrios’ office of improper hiring and firing, arbitrary staffing decisions and resistance to change,” a 2017 Tribune analysis found, thanks to a slow pace of reform and “tepid” commitments from Berrios to clean up.

Inside the Cook County Assessor's office in Chicago on May 24, 2017.

Inside the Cook County Assessor’s office in Chicago on May 24, 2017. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Such oversight is not only cumbersome for the office — requiring a lot of paperwork and careful planning — it is costly. A hired compliance administrator for the office has cost at least $4.7 million, according to recent Finance Committee records. Patronage hiring had also affected the way the office calculated property values, the 2017 Tribune analysis found. Berrios had also hired relatives to county jobs, including his son and sister.

Kaegi defeated Berrios in the 2018 Democratic primaries, but faced early reprimand from the Shakman monitor, Susan Feibus, for not grasping “the level of scrutiny” that came with such oversight. But on Oct. 12, the parties filed an agreed motion to end the oversight, arguing the Assessor’s office had reached substantial compliance.

To exit Shakman oversight, the office has to create an employment plan and show it would comply with that plan going forward and processes to prevent backsliding, and demonstrate that the office doesn’t have a “custom or practice of making employment decisions based on political factors.”

According to the court filing arguing for an end to oversight, the office created an employee handbook, an ethics policy that went “above and beyond” the county’s ethics ordinance, an “unusually wide-ranging, expansive” time and attendance policy and “bak(ed) in… no political consideration certification” on most forms.

“In the four years of my administration, our federal monitors have not found a single instance of politically motivated hiring,” Kaegi told commissioners.

Kaegi’s office had hoped to exit court oversight more than a year ago, but has faced several delays and roadblocks.

The court filing notes the “absence of any substantiated complaints regarding political discrimination” is notable given the “large number of hirings” the office has undertaken since Kaegi took office.

That doesn’t mean the assessor can’t hire political allies: There is a certain number of Shakman-exempt positions for policymaking positions. But Shakman compliance is intended to end the practice office-wide.

The court will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. Nov. 1 at the Dirksen federal court building to decide whether to dismiss the Assessor from the Shakman lawsuit. The county clerk’s office, which is separate from the circuit court clerk, is still under Shakman oversight.

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October 25, 2022 at 02:24PM

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