"Cultural change is hard. Elements of patronage undoubtedly remain in city government. We have never expected that this litigation would produce a perfect non-political employment system."
— Attorney Michael Shakman testifying Monday, some 45 years after his lawsuit launched a war on political patronage in Chicago and Cook County
The moment should be celebratory, the optimism genuine. The seventh federal judge to oversee Michael Shakman's nearly half-century case against patronage on Monday finally freed City Hall from a 1972 court decree intended to make personnel decisions fair.
Along the way, Chicagoans learned how pernicious a scourge patronage has been here, and how destructive its costs: Political discrimination by the Democratic machine cheated applicants and employees by the thousands of equitable chances at public jobs, promotions and continued employment. Chicagoans learned City Hall's sleazy MO from explosive criminal cases, chief among them the convictions of Mayor Richard M. Daley's patronage chief and other insiders who had rigged tests and faked interviews to help Daley loyalists. Chicagoans also came to see the tremendous dollar value that made city jobs political currency — secure employment with good pay, fabulous insurance benefits and generous pensions that keep coming until the casket slams shut.
That's been the essence of the Shakman case since the then-27-year-old attorney filed it in 1969: While most of the news coverage has dwelt on eye-glazing personnel practices, real people paid diabolical costs of Chicago's patronage system. Many victims never knew that, because they lacked machine connections, they had been summarily denied what might have been rewarding careers for themselves and upward economic mobility for their families. They never knew they'd been chumped by crooks at City Hall.
One month ago, when news broke that U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier likely would declare the city in "substantial compliance" with rules, procedures and internal policing intended to keep politics out of personnel decisions, we applauded Shakman for his diligence, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel for breaking from the ugly history of mayoral intransigence that ranged from foot-dragging to aggressive resistance. With the judge's action this week, we double down on that praise for Emanuel and Shakman. This is a historic moment for the city.
Leave it, though, to members of Chicago's oversized and often extraneous City Council to besmirch a rare moment of ethical good news at City Hall. The Tribune's Hal Dardick reports that while Emanuel has agreed to close a loophole that for decades allowed city employees fired for misconduct to get hired at other government agencies, aldermen have refused to go along when it comes to the hundreds of jobs they control.
Emanuel in February got agreement from City Hall's so-called sister agencies — such as the CTA, Chicago Public Schools and the Park District — to abide by the city's do-not-hire list of ex-employees who were fired for misconduct or who left city jobs while facing credible allegations of misconduct. And the aldermen? "Despite numerous recommendations and letters sent to the City Council by this office, the City Council has not agreed to honor the Ineligible for Rehire list," monitor Noelle Brennan wrote in a report last month.
Emanuel told Dardick he encourages the aldermen "to take a look at what we're doing citywide (to enforce the do-not-hire regimen), and see why the best practices are the right practices for them."
That's a triumph of hope over experience. We're more swayed by city Legislative Inspector General Faisal Khan: "The fact the City Council does not want to abide by the ineligible-for-rehire list is a perfect example of the double standard that takes place in the city. They put themselves above the law in juxtaposition to their colleagues in city government, and sooner or later this has to stop."
At stake here are more than 200 full-time jobs with a lush payroll of more than $14.6 million. Expense accounts, which some aldermen use to hire more workers, provide $4.85 million in additional spending. That's nearly $20 million in potential juice for political cronies.
We've heard the self-serving excuses: This is symbolic resistance from aldermen who've watched mayors crimp their powers. Mayoral underlings talk to council members as if they're the help, with one-sided conversations that boil down to, "Here's how it's gonna be." Every time a mayor proposes a new governance procedure (which mayors always refer to as "a reform") the aldermen's first thought is, "How's he screwing us now?"
But we've also watched aldermanic hiring: The longest-serving aldermen with the most influential committee sinecures have the biggest staffs and the most entrenched bunker mentalities. They want to hire whom they want.
Mayor Emanuel, you said plenty to the people of Chicago as City Hall broke free of Shakman restrictions: "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."
But you also said Chicagoans "are not naive. They know that attempts to influence city hiring won't magically disappear overnight. ... Every day we've got to earn (the people's) trust."
That trust won't come while aldermen slyly shield themselves from rules that drive the rest of city government.
Mr. Mayor, don't let this Shakman victory be one news cycle's win. Don't let this rest.
As a candidate in 2010, you talked about ending City Hall corruption. You were right then. Be right now. Keep talking about the aldermen and their foolish refusal to make your victory complete.