Cook County Board acts to curtail Stroger spending
The Cook County Board moved Friday to monitor and sharply curtail the lame-duck spending of President Todd Stroger with a series of ordinances to be taken up at Tuesday's regular meeting.
The ordinance amendments, sponsored by several commissioners, including both Chicago Democrats and suburban Republicans, call on all county spending and hiring to be submitted to the board within 72 hours for inspection and would impose a countywide hiring freeze until the end of November. They were posted Friday as new items on Tuesday's agenda.
"There is a legitimate public-policy purpose for giving the president contracting capability," said Democratic Commissioner Larry Suffredin of Evanston, one of the ordinance sponsors. He suggested a possible air-conditioning malfunction at Stroger Hospital, where swift action might need to be taken. "We don't want to take away what is good public policy," he added.
Yet recent activity in the president's office, he said, suggested potential abuses.
The action comes after it was revealed earlier this week that the county had paid $24,975 for "consulting services" in February to a public-relations firm owned by Carla Oglesby, even as Oglesby, Stroger's campaign spokeswoman, was being hired at a six-figure salary as his deputy chief of staff. The consulting fee, paid Feb. 26, eventually posted on the county's new check-register website, but was $25 under the threshold requiring previous board approval.
"Any time a personal-services contract is within $100 of the $25,000 limit, it's a problematic issue," Suffredin said.
Stroger's office issued a statement saying the payment was made for public-relations work during the 2008 floods, but Suffredin said he couldn't recall her firm doing any work during that period - or what she's doing for the county now. "I can't remember seeing her," he said. "It's really strange that she would come out of nowhere."
The Stroger statement also said Oglesby had divested herself from the firm on management responsibilities before joining the county, but Suffredin pointed out it is ownership of the firm, not management, that creates the potential conflict of interest. "Ownership is the issue," he said.
Word that Stroger was spending county funds on new furnishings and one-way reflecting-glass doorways in his offices at the county building in downtown Chicago also raised hackles.
"It looks to me like we've opened up the bank and left the vault door open," said Bartlett Republican Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a co-sponsor of the ordinances, which he said were designed to "corral the spending, create greater accountability and stop the going-out-of-business sale."
Suffredin pointed to the higher $100,000 limit on goods rather than services before the board is granted approval on a contract, adding, "One of the concerns we now have is, 'Are there a lot of contracts under $100,000 we don't know about out there?' "
Stroger's office did not respond to additional requests for comment on the proposed ordinances.
Suffredin said there were worries Stroger was overspending in an attempt to make it more difficult to roll back the other half of the 1 percentage point increase in the sales tax the board cut in half last year in a move to take effect in July. He also said Stroger was proving himself untrustworthy as a lame-duck president.
"I've been concerned with that since Feb. 2," Suffredin said. "Any time you have a lame duck this long, a number of things can happen."
"He's making some moves over there that, had he won, I don't think he'd be doing," added Chicago Democratic Commissioner Edwin Reyes, another co-sponsor.
"I think there is a real lack of trust right now with this president," Schneider said. "It's all about accountability, and frankly it wouldn't be necessary if we could completely trust our chief executive."
After losing in the Democratic primary in February, Stroger will be replaced in office the first week of December by the winner of November's general election.
"For the next seven months," Suffredin said, "we've got to just watch him like a hawk."