Forty-two years after a lawsuit was filed alleging elected officials in Chicago were improperly allowing politics to influence hiring and promotional practices, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has become the first public office to be dismissed from that lawsuit.
After two years of on-site monitoring and reports of activity, U.S. District Court Presiding Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier has delivered a first-of-its-kind ruling affirming that Sheriff Thomas J. Dart is operating an office free from those influences.
In December, Judge Schenkier found the office was in “substantial compliance” with what’s known as the Shakman Decree – the first time any public office had reached that status. Since then, Dart has worked closely with plaintiff Michael Shakman to finalize legal proceedings and satisfy expectations under the decree, steps that led to Friday’s ground-breaking ruling. There remain 17 other city and county agencies involved as defendants.
“Dart has made compliance with the Shakman principles a priority not just in words, but in actions,” Judge Schenkier said in one court hearing. “He has … gone beyond the minimum to create an office that will be free of political influence that’s improper and he is to be congratulated for the commitment that he has demonstrated.”
Reaching the same levels of compliance, Schenkier noted to the 17 other defendants, “is not an impossible goal” and Dart’s actions give “everyone a roadmap as to the kinds of things that will allow” those other offices to reach the same level of compliance.
Dismissal from the suit is the first since Shakman filed suit in 1969 and comes after just two years of committed work by Sheriff Dart to come into compliance. That work included inviting monitors to thoroughly examine personnel operations and allow any current or former employees to file claims of political discrimination. That work resulted in no evidence of substantiated claims of political discrimination during the Dart administration.
“While it took a lot of hard work to reach this point, it was an easy decision to operate an office in this fashion,” Sheriff Dart said. “Private businesses hire the most qualified and talented employees for a position and that’s the same way public agencies should operate. When public employees know it is their hard work – and nothing else – which will determine how successful they are in their careers, it is the public who benefits the most.”
In 2008, Judge Schenkier appointed retired Cook County Judge Clifford Meacham to serve as the monitor whose staff would directly oversee personnel practices and implementation of changes in operations at the sheriff’s office. That included sitting in on interviews and investigating claims of Shakman violations. A 2010 filing by the monitor made note “with confidence that the sheriff’s office does not field a political patronage army.”
Sheriff Dart tabbed Robert Shannon and Brette Bensinger of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP to represent the office in the proceedings, while he also appointed top staffers, headed by his Chief of Staff Brian Towne, to work closely with Judge Meacham and his staff. Through that work, protocols were developed to ensure that no political influence can come into personnel practices, even after Dart is no longer sheriff.
Filings by monitors noted Dart’s “effort is unmatched by any other” office under the Shakman Decree and the way the office is now operated produces “a better, fairer and more functional office” where “the benefit to the public … while difficult to quantify, is considerable.”
Since the December finding that the office was in “substantial compliance,” monitors have continued to see through the decisions of 22 pending investigations of employees being conducted by the independent Office of Professional Review.
With those cases resolved and Shakman satisfied that no political influence went into employment decisions, Judge Schenkier dismissed the office from the complaint – meaning taxpayers will no longer continue to pay to fund Shakman monitoring or associated legal fees. Since 2008, the office has spent approximately $5.3 million on Shakman-related expenses.