Chicago seeks end to federal hiring oversight

May 15, 2014

File/Illinois.gov
File: Attorney Michael Shakman.

A crusading lawyer who fought for decades against Chicago’s entrenched political patronage system is finally calling for an end to federal oversight of City Hall’s hiring practices.

Attorney Michael Shakman told a federal judge on Thursday that the city has come into “substantial compliance” with the so-called Shakman decrees, which are a series of court orders that have sought to end the sort of politically-motivated hiring and firing practices that have been an inextricable part Chicago politics for decades.

Chicago has been under the watchful eye of a federal hiring monitor since 2005, following high-profile political hiring scandals involving top aides to former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“Over the past several years, the City has developed and implemented policies and procedures to help ensure that unlawful political reasons and factors are not and will not be considered in the City’s employment actions,” reads Thursday’s joint court filing, which was also signed by Corporation Counsel Steve Patton, the city’s top lawyer.

Speaking by phone on Thursday, Shakman said Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has helped bring an end to the federal oversight by disciplining Daley-era workers who violated political hiring rules. He also praised Emanuel for implementing new hiring plans, and appointing aides and an inspector general who watchdog political hiring.

But Shakman added Chicago still has work to do to shed its reputation as a town where political supporters have often been rewarded with government jobs.

“We’re not naive,” he said. “We don’t think that politics is gonna disappear overnight from the minds of lots of people. But all we can really do in the real world is set up procedures that should prevent it.”

If a federal judge approves the joint request at a hearing on June 16, the city’s inspector general would take over hiring duties from the court-appointed monitor.

That would mark the end of a legal battle that has plagued City Hall for nearly 45 years. The fight began in 1969, when Shakman was an independent candidate running against the mighty Cook County Democratic Party for a seat at Illinois’ 1970 Constitutional Convention. Since then, several court orders - collectively known as the “Shakman decrees” - have sought to strip political considerations from most hiring decisions at City Hall.

The federal monitor was appointed in 2005, following the federal indictment of Daley’s former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, for steering city jobs toward politically-connected applicants, in violation of the Shakman decrees. Also that summer, another top Daley aide, Donald Tomczak, pleaded guilty to similar criminal charges. Sorich was found guilty in 2006.

In addition to tempering Chicago’s reputation for political cronyism, the hiring scandals have also cost City Hall big money. The city has had to foot the bill for the federal monitor, which has cost the city $6.6 million, according to Emanuel’s administration. Another $4.3 million has gone to consultant and legal fees, and the city has paid out nearly $12 million to settle hiring-related legal cases since 2008, according to the an Emanuel aide.

“Since the first day of my administration, we have made it a priority to take politics out of the hiring process, professionalize city government, and end the decades of practices that were a stain on our City,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in an emailed statement. “We are turning a page on the past to a future where the public knows that the City has a transparent and accountable system in place to ensure that city jobs will go to the candidate who is most qualified, not the most connected.”

The end of federal hiring monitoring for the city may also mean the end of Joe Ferguson’s tenure as Chicago Inspector General. Despite several public clashes with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the past, the mayor reappointed Ferguson to another four-year term last year.

But Ferguson told WBEZ then that he might “move onto other things” once the city was out from under the Shakman monitor, which he hoped to achieve by the end of this summer. On Thursday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the inspector general declined to comment on his future.

Alex Keefe is political reporter at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.