The last Republican to win a countywide election in Cook County was James O’Grady, who served a single term as sheriff from 1987 to 1991.
I bring this up to point out how difficult it will be to get Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios to quit hiring his relatives. Berrios was just fined $10,000 board by the County Ethics Board for hiring his son, Joey, as a residential analyst and his sister, Carmen, as deputy assessor of taxpayer services. (Berrios promoted his daughter, Vanessa, but since she was working in the assessor’s office before his election, it wasn’t considered an unethical act of nepotism.)
According to the Sun-Times, which obtained a copy of the board’s “confidential” report (someone there wants to embarrass Berrios):
The board found he violated his fiduciary duties as well as a prohibition on hiring relatives laid out in the county’s ethics ordinance.
“Maintaining the public trust and confidence of those that government serves, is a key component of being a fiduciary. The hiring and or employing of family members as County employees undermines this public trust,” according to the three-page report signed by Board of Ethics Chairperson Roseann Oliver. The report goes on: “Rather than promote an open and transparent governmental hiring process, this conduct promotes the opposite, a closed and opaque process.”
For that reason, the board recommends Berrios take decisive action — which could make holiday dinners a little tough to endure.
“It is the Board of Ethics’ recommendation that the Assessor remove his sister and son from the County Assessor’s Office’s payroll, and fill those positions in accordance with the proper and customary hiring process, and not by relatives as defined by the Cook County Ethics Ordinance,” Oliver wrote in a report dated June 20.
Berrios’ response is essentially the same argument he offers whenever he’s asked about hiring his relatives: I won the election. And it’s sound. The Board of Ethics, which is appointed by Board President Toni Preckwinkle, cannot tell an elected official how to run his office. In Illinois, organizations with the word “ethics” in their name have no authority.
Only the voters can hold Joe Berrios accountable. So far, he has survived every attack the goo-goos have thrown at him, from a pre-election expose in Chicago magazine to an independent challenge by Forrest Claypool. He’ll probably survive this ethics violation, too. The only way to get rid of Berrios is to beat him in the March 2014 Democratic primary. That happened to former Board President Todd Stroger. Stroger was bounced because he raised the sales tax a penny. Unless Berrios sets property assessments to an unfair level -- which he hasn’t done -- he won’t generate the same civic ire.
(Berrios has been lowering assessments, in acknowledgement of the weak real estate market. As
Ben Joravsky wrote on the Chicago Reader’s blog: "Got my latest property tax assessment in the mail from Cook County assessor Joe Berrios. Good news! It says the value of my house fell 6 percent.” Hard to complain about that.)
Also, Berrios is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party. His name will appear on a lot of palm cards. What I’m saying is, I think we’re stuck with Joe Berrios and his family. No matter how much the goo-goos go after them.