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At the Cook County sheriff's office: A chief of staff who wasn't

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart admits it: When he was chief of staff for the previous sheriff, he was part of the problem.

The problem? People's job titles often didn't match their responsibilities.

"I was chief of staff in title, but my actual job was that I worked on jail overcrowding," Dart said earlier this month in a meeting with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board. "I did nothing [as a chief of staff]. I never had staff meetings. The county budgets were such that the titles that people had did not reflect their jobs. I was an example of that.

" I was working rather diligently on an issue that is very important, the jail, but I wasn't a traditional chief of staff."

When he was elected sheriff in 2006, Dart suddenly was facing that problem from a different perspective, that of top management. He quickly found that his previous position was not the only one that was mischaracterized. In fact, the department's so-called "exempt list," the listing of managers who could be hired and fired at will by the sheriff, hadn't been updated in two decades.

"On my exempt list were positions that were eliminated a long time ago, and then there were other positions that clearly ... should have been exempt because of the significance of them, but were not," Dart said . " ... I was in this terrifically murky area. It was just teed up to have myself sued and, frankly, really not have a good defense."

As a result, Dart said, he didn't know who was considered an employee protected by the Shakman decree, which prevents patronage hiring and firing.

"Try managing a 7,000-employee company with a $450 million budget when you don't even know who you have the liberty to move around, to change their job title to fit what you need at that moment, who you can fire because they aren't getting the job done," Dart said. "I was just completely in the dark."

Fixing that was part of an ambitious personnel restructuring that this month brought the sheriff's office into "substantial compliance" with Shakman, the first of the local governmental units to do so.

The updating of personnel policies that Shakman required had other benefits as well, Dart said.

For example, Dart was surprised to find out that supervisors filling out personnel evaluation forms gave everyone the same score.

"When I was first told that, I thought someone was making a bizarre generalization, you know, everyone is about 83 percent," Dart said. "No, it was the identical score. I said: How in God's name can you do that? And they said, the sergeants don't like to have the correctional officers get mad at them, so we don't want to write them up and give them a bad performance review because we are stuck with them on the tier at the time. ... And I said, that's what you signed up for when you wanted to be a sergeant."

The identical reviews would have made it hard to fire even the worst malingerer on the staff, because the employee could point to an official performance evaluation that was just as good as those received by other employees.

"Now we have a very, very thoughtful well-vetted evaluation form," Dart said.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Frisbie published on December 13, 2010 1:16 PM.

No place like home -- Chicago -- for Obama's presidential library was the previous entry in this blog.

Cook County sheriff, Part II: How firing got easier is the next entry in this blog.

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