I-Team Report: The Clout Farm

December 3, 2009 4:38:32 AM PST
It's where some of Illinois' richest political land yields bumper crops of patronage and paychecks year after year.There are 30 "clout farms" in Cook County alone; townships with names including Barrington and Bremen; Niles, Norwood Park, River Forest and Riverside. They are funded by millions in tax money with only two mandated functions: roads and temporary aid to the poor.

But with most of their tax money for salaries and other programs, critics call townships a waste, especially in an urban county.

"Cronyism, nepotism, patronage...all in the service of taking care of friends and families and campaign contributors," said Andy Shaw, executive director, Better Government Association.

Civic watchdog BGA and the I-Team obtained financial and personnel records from Cook County townships under the Freedom of Information Act.

The files expose townships as a cash crop for some local politicians.

"They incur multiple salaries, they get multiple pensions and benefits, they have multiple relatives on the payroll. It's a family business," said Tony Peraica, (R) Cook County commissioner.

In Leyden Township it has become a multiple family business with at least 18 township jobs split among eight different families.

Leyden supervisor Bradley Stephens says all the employees are hard workers and deserve the jobs.

Mr. Stephens, who declined to speak on camera, is also mayor of nearby Rosemont and has quite a political pedigree, as the son of the late Rosemont mayor Donald Stephens.

Brad Stephens draws salaries from both the mayor and supervisor jobs, although notes he cut the supervisor pay from $44,000 to $15,000 a year.

"There are several positions that exist in township government that exist because people like the title, it somehow gives them influence someplace else," said Rep. Mike Quigley, (D)Chicago.

Consider Stickney Township supervisor Louis Viverito, one of three township supervisors in Cook County who also hold state elective office. Viverito is Stickney's state senator.

With his name on a township senior center and his township medical services enabling residents to avoid cook county hospital, Viverito is adored.

GOUDIE: "Is it fair to say that those also have helped you in your re-election to state senator?

"There's no question. The only reason I think that they chose me was because of the reputation that we enjoyed here in Stickney Township," said Viverito.

All townships in Cook County elect or appoint assessors and collectors.

"If township assessors didn't exist...it would be chaos," said Al Riley, (D) Rich Township supervisor.

Al Riley, the supervisor in Rich Township and also a state representative, says they get 80 residents a day visiting their assessor.

When the I-Team showed up there was a line out front but not for the assessor.

GOUDIE: "What are you here for?
PEOPLE IN LINE: Free food."

By 1 p.m. the assessor sign in sheet only showed a few visitors. So, I asked to speak with second term assessor Carol Ranieri about her office staffed by five employees.

GOUDIE: "What do you assess?
Ranieri: The township assessors don't assess."

The I-Team and the BGA found that Cook County township assessors don't assess property values because that is the county's job. So what do they do?

"Says they help out taxpayers kind of like ombudsmen," said Ranieri.

And because assessors don't assess, township collectors have nothing to collect.

"The collector just helps us with other programs that have nothing to do with collecting because in Cook County they don't do any collections," said Frank Zuccarelli, (D) Thornton Township supervisor.

"We run with the collectors even though he or she doesn't do anything. Hopefully they think if somebody dies or someone leaves maybe they can move up to be a trustee someday," said Viverito, (D)Stickney Township supervisor.

Although a staunch proponent of townships, Viverito suggests the voters decide whether they want them to continue in a ballot referendum.

"So if the public in their community feels that township government isn't worthwhile they would have the opportunity to eliminate it," said Viverito.

That idea didn't go over well with most Illinois township officials at their annual education conference. The meeting included one seminar entitled "What's my job! Now that I'm elected."

At an awards breakfast where townships honored themselves, Rich Township won for overall best in the state.

"It's closest to the people, it's the oldest form of government," said Riley.

"What fights against change here is the fact that the democrats and the republicans realize that there is important turf here, there's jobs here and there's power," said Rep. Quigley.

When the jobs end the costs don't. The I-Team and the BGA have learned that nearly 500 former township workers are currently paid more than $4 million every year in public pensions.

Learn more about township government and how they are spending your money:

Township Officials of Cook County: www.toi.org/TOCC

Township Officials of Illinois Web site: www.toi.org

See the Cook County's Township payroll database on Chicago's Better Government Association: www.bettergov.org


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