Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cook County Board President Steele: Status Quo or Reform?

Somebody once said, “You shall know me by whom I hang with,” or something like that. So, who does newly minted Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele [D-Chicago] hang with, so to speak?

Steele’s first two appointments were J. W. Fairman and Albert Pritchett. Both of these individuals would appear to have been heavily immersed, at one time or another, in what they are charged with fixing in Cook County Government. On the one hand, some might say that is good because they should know the problems [See Chicago Tribune editorial]. On the other hand, their critics might suggest they, at one time or another, were the problem. [See Ciokajlo’s Tribune article]. We discuss, you decide.

J. W. Fairman is the new COO of the beleaguered Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and until yesterday, he was the Cook County Public Safety coordinator, which many would think has oversight responsibility for the entity Fairman is charged with fixing. Fairman now seems to say his hands were tied in the past and the responsibility for fixing [or not fixing] the Detention Center rested with then President John Stroger. John Stroger, whose stroke, almost five months ago, led to Steele taking the helm yesterday, is not doing a lot of public speaking or responding to such allegations these days.

"I'm disturbed by Mr. Fairman's appointment," said County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who had called on Steele to fire Robinson. "I was hoping that she would bring in an outsider who is not complicit in the management failures of the juvenile center."

Claypool said he hoped that Fairman would move quickly to fire senior managers and problem employees …See Ciokajlo’s Tribune article.

However, based on what J. W. Fairman said yesterday [See interview, below], quick terminations of staff by Fairman do not appear on the horizon.

Albert Pritchett is Steele’s new Chief Administrative Officer. Pritchett should know where all the bodies are buried. The question is, did he put them there? Pritchett is the Former Chief Administrative Officer to Cook County Board Presidents Dick Phelan and John Stroger.

Is the Steele regime, a case of--As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Further, how much change can one really expect from a one hundred twenty day caretaker regime? A four year County Board President will be elected on November 7, 2006 [The choices are Chicago Alderman Todd Stroger, the Democrat Nominee or Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, the Republican Nominee] and he will take office on December 4, 2006.

Let’s see what J. W. Fairman had to say about this, moments after Cook County Commissioner Bobbie Steele [D-Chicago], who has been in that position for two decades, added the words, Madame President, to her title.
Jeff Berkowitz: Would you have had the opportunity before, if you had wanted to, to try to fire Jerry Robinson [the former head of Cook County’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, whose resignation was accepted on Bobbie Steele's first day as President of the County Board] ?

J. W. Fairman: If I- you know, would I have had the opportunity?

Jeff Berkowitz: Yes.

J. W. Fairman: Presidential appointments are determinations by the President of the County Board, whoever that is.

Jeff Berkowitz: Did you ever ask President Stroger about firing Jerry Robinson for not executing properly?

J. W. Fairman: No, I did not.

Jeff Berkowitz: Why not?

J. W. Fairman: I talked to him about our progress and what we needed to do to go forward. You know I am not going to get into personal comments about what happened with those.

Jeff Berkowitz: Why should people think you are a credible reformer to replace this guy [Robinson] when you were in a position to do something [about him] and critics might say you didn’t?

J. W. Fairman: Well, let me say this much: What the structure looks like, it may not be. In other words, you have to judge me on what I have done in the past and see what I do with this thirty days over there or this one hundred twenty days at the Cook County Temporary Detention Center, and, you know, see if I have a free hand.

Jeff Berkowitz: How’s your brother [John Fairman] doing at [Cook County’s] Provident Hospital?

J. W. Fairman: He is doing fine. He is learning the same way I did that this is a different system.

Jeff Berkowitz: You think he got that [Provident Hospital COO] job as a result of some nepotism?

J. W. Fairman: No, I think you have to look at his history. I mean he ran the Flagship Health Center in the United States at Denver, and he ran the- he was the No. 2 person down in Harris County. He ran a system up in Washington, DC. And, you know, he has a Master’s [Degree] in Hospital Administration. So, he’s done this.

Jeff Berkowitz: But, Cook County Commissioner Claypool said he ran into problems wherever he was and Claypool said he[John Fairman] was accused of running the hospitals into the ground [See here]

J. W. Fairman: I think you would have to talk with Commissioner Claypool and my brother about what they said. I am not going on that. I have an opinion about that. I happen to know the inside stuff, but I’d like my brother to talk for himself.

Jeff Berkowitz: …Are you criticizing Claypool?

J. W. Fairman: I am not criticizing any Commissioner. I am just saying that I am an administrator, not a politician and I know what happened in the background, but it is not my job to go forward.

Jeff Berkowitz: Do you stand by your brother?

J. W. Fairman: Yes, I do.
Jeff Berkowitz: How many staff members do you think you have to get rid of at the Juvenile Detention Center?

J. W. Fairman: I am not going in there with that kind of attitude. I don’t have a name or number of people that I have to get rid. I really don’t have. I will have to see what’s over there.

Jeff Berkowitz: Don’t you think you have to get rid of some, in light of the continued problems [at the Juvenile Detention Center]

J. W. Fairman: Well, obviously some of the administrative structure has to be changed right away.

Jeff Berkowitz: But, not the people necessarily?

J. W. Fairman: Yeah, the people, themselves.

Jeff Berkowitz: No, I mean do some of those personnel have to be gotten out of that area and get some more qualified people in?

J. W. Fairman: There’s no doubt about it.

Jeff Berkowitz: How many?

J. W. Fairman: I don’t know the number. I really don’t.

Jeff Berkowitz: How many people work there.

J. W. Fairman: There were- the last count I can remember- there were in excess of 450 people.

Jeff Berkowitz: Claypool says it is patronage laden. Do you agree?

J. W. Fairman: I don’t have the same information Mr. Claypool has so I couldn’t make a comment about that.

Jeff Berkowitz: When do you suppose you would know the answer to that question?

J. W. Fairman: I don’ know if I would ever know the answer to that question. I’d know whether or not people are competent to do the job based on observing their performance.

Jeff Berkowitz: When are you going to know that?

J. W. Fairman: I think that me and my team will know not everybody there, but certainly we’ll know a substantial portion within a sixty day period.

Jeff Berkowitz: Will you make a report at that time?

J. W. Fairman: We are going to keep Commissioner, now President, Steele advised of our accomplishments and the Chief of Staff as we go forward.

Jeff Berkowitz: So, you are going to give that report, that analysis, to President Steele?

J. W. Fairman: And our Chief of Staff.

Jeff Berkowitz: Albert Pritchett.

J. W. Fairman: That’s correct.

Jeff Berkowitz: You know Mr. Pritchett?

J. W. Fairman: Yes, I do.

Jeff Berkowitz: Do you think that’s a good appointment?

J. W. Fairman: I know that’s a good appointment. He’s an excellent person and administrator.

Jeff Berkowitz: Is he a reformer?

J. W. Fairman: He has always been a reform—You know he has made a lot of changes in Cook County Government that people didn’t see. I don’t think former County Board President Phelan would have asked for him and, you know, kept him as Chief Administrative Officer if he didn’t think so.

Jeff Berkowitz: But, was he a John Stroger guy?

J. W. Fairman: He was on the staff when I was here at the Cook County Jail for President Phelan. He was the Chief Administrative Officer.

Jeff Berkowitz: But, was he kept on by Stroger?

J. W. Fairman: I don’t know what he was with Stroger. [Ed. Note, President Stroger kept Pritchett on as his Chief Administrator from 1994 until 1998, and brought him back in 2003; Pritchett’s name appeared in the December, 2005 Cook County indictment of county employee Shirley Glover, with court documents stating that Pritchett and Stroger’s patronage chief, Gerald Nichols, “ordered” county officials to hire Glover as finance director for a $14 million program even though she was an “unqualified” and “inept” ex-con . See here]. When I came back in 2002, either Mr. Pritchett was retiring, or as I remember, gone. I don’t know what was going on. I was in California, if you remember.

Jeff Berkowitz: But, you think Pritchett is a good appointment?

J. W. Fairman: I have no doubt he is.
J. W. Fairman, interviewed on August 1, 2006, at the Hotel Allegro, moments after Commissioner Steele was sworn as the first female President of the Cook County Board in the 175 year history of Cook County, whose population exceeds five million people.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at