Cook County commissioners exchanged hugs and lots of accolades on Thursday as they passed a balanced budget for 2019.
But shortly after, the mood turned sour for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
The Democrat continued to defend her handling of sexual misconduct allegations against her former chief of staff, John Keller, whom she fired in September two days before announcing her bid to run for Chicago mayor.
She repeatedly told media then she had no prior knowledge of other, earlier allegations against Keller. “I have no tolerance for this,” Preckwinkle said the night she announced her candidacy.
But Preckwinkle did learn in March of another claim against Keller, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation.
When asked on Thursday about the discrepancy in her public comments, Preckwinkle said she heard an earlier unsubstantiated rumor against Keller, but could not confirm it.
“I went back to the person who brought the rumor,” Preckwinkle recalled. “I said look, here’s the situation. You brought me a rumor. John’s denied it. Please go back to the person who brought the rumor to you. And see if you can find, you know, time, place, date, circumstances, victims, witnesses, anything. And no one came forward then. No one has come forward to my knowledge since.”
She reiterated her disappointment in Keller, who started working for her when she was a Chicago alderman more than a decade ago. She fired him in September based on other, later allegations she did corroborate and which Keller did not deny.
“I’ve been in government and public life for 30 years, and I’ve experienced and witnessed unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior,” Preckwinkle said. “I don’t want any woman put in that position, nor do I want people to be afraid to come forward.”
Last month, she asked the county inspector general to investigate Keller’s entire tenure. Records show he worked for the county on and off since at least 2010. The issue of what Preckwinkle knew about the Keller accusations, and when she knew it, could dog the president as she ramps up her mayoral campaign ahead of the February city election.
Preckwinkle spoke after the county board unanimously approved a nearly $6 billion budget for 2019, effective Dec. 1. It was the last budget for many commissioners who either lost in the midterm elections this month or decided not to seek another term.
The new budget includes no new taxes, fees, or fines, but it also doesn’t address a looming deficit. That will be left to the new board, which is more Democratic, female, and diverse.
Most commissioners congratulated themselves on a job well done after last year’s contentious budget process. That involved laying off hundreds of county workers after commissioners repealed the hated tax on sugary beverages.
Still, even though he voted to approve the 2019 budget, outgoing Commissioner John Fritchey cautioned his colleagues that tough times are ahead.
“This county is looking at a projected $200 million plus deficit over the next several years that will take some very, very difficult choices on my friends and colleagues here and on the new ones coming in,” said Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat who lost in the March primary.
Among highlights in the new budget:
- After Preckwinkle pitched her budget in October, the county received an extra $11.5 million to fund more services and jobs, partly due to a surplus in special taxing districts set up by the city.
- Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx benefits from that extra funding. She received $1.4 million to hire 16 more lawyers and a clerk. During a public hearing last month, she argued for the extra attorneys to deal with a heaping pile of misdemeanor cases.
- Sheriff Tom Dart gets an extra $1 million for a policing initiative that adds extra patrols mainly on the South and West sides of Chicago. He had asked for $5 million. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a message to comment.
- The county will add $1.3 million to boost outreach for the 2020 Census. Commissioner Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, said undercounting residents could impact the amount of federal funding the county receives.
- $500,000 will eventually go to a vendor that can house pregnant women in Cook County Jail who are awaiting trial. The goal is to prevent separating mothers from their infants.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.