A federal judge declared Monday that Chicago can finally be trusted to keep politics out of government hiring, releasing City Hall from a 42-year-old court settlement that was supposed to ban patronage — often with mixed results.
The historic end to the Shakman consent decree that has influenced city hiring since 1972 came with a warning from every key player in the court case: Continued vigilance is needed to keep political considerations out of hiring for public jobs — a practice perfected by the Democratic machine during decades of one-party rule in Chicago.
“None of us think this is the end of the story,” said attorney Michael Shakman, who triggered the court odyssey with a 1969 anti-patronage lawsuit and recently asked the U.S. District Court to end decades of federal oversight of city hiring.
“None of us think there will never be another example of patronage hiring in the city or public employment influenced by patronage,” Shakman said. “That's unrealistic to expect, but it is realistic to expect and recognize that the city has put in place the systems and the people and the commitment to clean up its act.”
The end came quickly at a two-hour hearing Monday, after years of failed efforts to end the decree that began with former Mayor Richard J. Daley, whose patronage army prompted the case, and continued through his son, Richard M. Daley, who saw top aides sent to prison for running an illegal hiring scheme. And it provided a timely victory for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was praised for stepping up efforts to end political hiring.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier declared the city in “substantial compliance” with a set of rules, procedures and internal policing requirements to keep politics out of hiring. But he cautioned that “substantial compliance does not mean the city has achieved a state of perfection.”
Killing off patronage is “not a revolutionary process, but an evolutionary one — it happens over time,” said Schenkier, the seventh judge to preside over the case.
The judge noted that Chicago has put in place procedures governing hiring, firing, promotions, discipline, overtime and the like that are designed to remove the influence of politics from those decisions. It also has set up an internal policing process, under the auspices of the Department of Human Resources and the inspector general's office, Schenkier added.
Emanuel seized the moment, just eight months before he seeks a second term, by addressing the “people of Chicago” in his brief court testimony before the ruling.
“Today is your day. After living under a cloud of mistrust for decades, you can be confident that your city government operates in a way that keeps your interests, and only your interests, first,” Emanuel said. But he also said the people of Chicago “are not naive. They know that attempts to influence city hiring won't magically disappear overnight.”
After the ruling, Emanuel told reporters that “every day we've got to earn (the people's) trust.”
But Emanuel's own connection to patronage politics was cited by one of the opponents who testified against the end of the decree.
Jay Stone, son for former Ald. Bernard Stone, 50th, won a $75,000 settlement under the consent decree in 2008 for his loss five years earlier to an incumbent alderman backed by a patronage political army. He reminded the court that in Emanuel's first run for Congress in 2002 he was helped by Donald Tomczak, a former city worker who controlled one of many political street armies that supported the allies of Richard M. Daley.
Stone said the mayor “stole” that election with the help of Tomczak and former city official Daniel Katalinik, both of whom were later convicted in a federal corruption probe. “Mayor Emanuel is seeking to end Shakman for his political advantage for the 2015 campaign,” Stone told the judge.
Emanuel has maintained he did not know Tomczak and declined to comment anew Monday, saying, “There's nothing more to say except for what we've done today and what we've accomplished today and what we have to do going forward.”
Stone was one of eight objectors to the declaration who testified in court, most telling tales of political discrimination harming their city careers. A total of 21 people filed written objections.
Patrick McDonough, a Department of Water Management plumber who is a frequent critic of city hiring practices, testified that the city has made much progress because of the Shakman accord.
“Please do not allow this progress to stop,” he said. “We do not stop the police force when a crime is solved. ... If you remove this oversight, things will go back immediately.”
Brian Hays, an attorney who worked with Shakman on the case, said individual objectors and others would have 180 days to file objections that could be considered under the umbrella of the Shakman accord, if their alleged violations occurred prior to Monday's declaration of substantial compliance.
In the future, people who believe they are victims of political discrimination at City Hall will be able to file complaints with Inspector General Joseph Ferguson or bring individual civil rights cases to court, said Hays, who added that “there is still a considerable level of lack of trust by city employees based on a long history of political discrimination.”
Shakman in 1969 filed the case that led to the accord after he lost an election while opposed by a political army loyal to Richard J. Daley, who also was chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.
Three years after Shakman filed the suit, Daley agreed to a court order banning the city from firing workers for failing to raise campaign money or get out the vote. That ruling later grew to include other forms of employment discrimination and more local governments, including several Cook County agencies still under supervision. Policymaking positions were exempt from the ban.
But patronage persisted, with Shakman and city attorneys fighting in court and individual cases of clout making headlines. Richard M. Daley was pushing to end the consent decree when a federal criminal probe of hiring in 2005 exposed a widespread system of subverting Shakman rules. Some of Daley's top lieutenants were convicted of rigging city hiring to reward political foot soldiers.
A federal judge installed a hiring monitor to keep a closer eye on City Hall, which has cost the city $22.8 million since 2005.
Since Emanuel took office in 2011, his administration has developed new hiring plans, cooperated more extensively with Ferguson, who is the city's internal hiring monitor, put a former Ferguson lieutenant in charge of the Human Resources Department that oversees city hiring and disciplined employees involved in the Daley hiring scandal.
“To say that the city has completely revamped its hiring process would be an understatement,” said Noelle Brennan, the court-appointed hiring monitor.
“We totally believe there is no longer a pattern or practice of abusing political patronage when making hiring decisions,” she added. “None of this could have happened without the complete support of Mayor Emanuel.”
Shakman, during his testimony, injected a note of caution: An important part of Emanuel's legacy “will be whether his commitment to patronage reform while he was subject of this court's oversight remained strong after that oversight ended.”
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