I-Team Report: The Inner Sanctum

December 9, 2010 4:32:44 AM PST
The inner sanctum of Cook County government -- where President Todd Stroger and before him his father John oversaw the second largest county budget in the nation -- became the office of newly-inaugurated President Toni Preckwinkle.

Over the years, it has been expected for incoming top-ranked politicians to spruce up their office space, buy new carpeting and furniture and even art work for their walls.

When Todd Stroger took over as county president he set up a private elevator for himself. So it was not too surprising when the I-Team received calls from county employees about construction crews showing up in the president's office just after Stroger departed.

Preckwinkle hadn't even said "I do" when the buzz began that crews were reconstructing and redecorating her offices. With her campaign pledge of austerity, such blatant disregard for a $485 million budget deficit would have been astounding -- even by Cook County standards.

So the I-Team came to the county building and to the fifth floor, across the long corridor from where a more famous city leader works, to see for ourselves whether there had been some post-election redecorating.

There was one wall put up, making two workspaces out what previously was one large office. And a couple of doors were repositioned.

Todd Stroger took most of the wall hangings, photos and awards, leaving behind just a few inspirational plaques and a dozen yellow roses for his successor, Toni Preckwinkle who now occupies an office that has not been redecorated, is well-worn and has just one lonely couch.

"The offices were in good shape," Preckwinkle told the I-Team.

The county president laughed at rumors that she had constructed a secret passageway between her office and the county board room so she could avoid confrontations.

"We've been holding one-on-one meetings with each of the commissioners to give them an opportunity to share their concerns and ideas and we're going to continue that until we get through all," she said.

At the top of Preckwinkle's to-do list is figuring out what happened to millions of dollars in federal grant money controlled by Stroger bureaucrats.

For months the I-Team has been investigating what Cook County did with $10 million in federal emergency funds intended for victims of the 2008 floods and why Todd Stroger spent $80,000 on a picnic at the zoo when flood-wrecked basements had been abandoned by the county.

Preckwinkle says she's asked the state to halt paying out any more flood grant money.

"We've got lots of issues ... one of which is what happened to the POET money, the President's Office of Employment and Training, why the summer program wasn't managed better, we've got neighborhood stabilization program NSP grant money that doesn't seem to have gotten out the door," said Preckwinkle.

Next week, she says an analyst from the bureau of administration will begin going over the grant books to see where the millions went. It' s part of an approach we found listed in bullet points on an office wall in the inner sanctum: start with fiscal responsibility; add innovated leadership; keep transparency and accountability and aim for improved services.

"I won't say it's that simple but that's what I think what I've stressed is we need the cooperation and collaboration of the other county wide elected officials and I expect we'll get it," said Preckwinkle.

With the county in fiscal crisis, and coming off the tumultuous Stroger term, the I-Team asked President Preckwinkle why anybody would want her job. Even after what she describes as a "hectic few day," she diplomatically answered with her laughter and said she should be careful of what she wishes for.


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