Cook County court clerk is latest to exit federal oversight of hiring practices, though administrator has lingering concerns

Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Following closely on the heels of the county assessor’s office, Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez announced Monday that her office was also freed from federal oversight of hiring and employment practices, known as Shakman monitoring. But the person in charge of birddogging compliance and reporting back to the court suggested the office was still deficient in key areas.

Judge Edmond Chang found the office in substantial compliance with the Shakman requirements to keep politics out of county hiring and promotions, “due to the creation and implementation of a new Employment Plan, acting in good faith to remedy instances of non-compliance, the absence of employment decisions based upon political factors, and the implementation of procedures that will prevent politics from interfering with the long-term operations of the office,” according to a release from Martinez’s office.

The office had filed to exit such oversight — and Shakman’s attorneys agreed, according to court filings — last month.

“Achieving substantial compliance in less than two years is an incredible feat, which was only achievable by the hard work of everyone in the office, and Cook County taxpayers will save hundreds of thousand dollars,” said Martinez in the release. She has been in charge of the office that manages paperwork for the county’s circuit courts since 2020.

Shakman oversight predated Martinez’s tenure, beginning under her predecessor Dorothy Brown in August 2018. The hiring monitor was brought in as Brown mounted a campaign for mayor of Chicago, and came as Brown faced allegations of bribes-for-jobs in the office, though she denied that and was never charged. After being booted from the mayoral ballot, Brown announced in 2019 she would not seek reelection as court clerk. Martinez came out on top in the 2020 Democratic primary on pledges to improve on the inefficiencies that plagued the office and botched tech rollouts.

The person watching over Shakman at the Circuit Court, compliance administrator Susan Feibus, was responsible for monitoring both the Assessor and Circuit Court’s practices to ensure politics was not taken into consideration for most personnel decisions, including hiring, firing and discipline of nonexecutive employees.

When the Assessor exited compliance, Feibus wrote that the office had “achieved Substantial Compliance and continued court oversight … (is) no longer is necessary.”

But in her final report submitted to the court earlier this month for Martinez’s office, Feibus did not conclude that compliance had been reached. Feibus said instead that she expected Chang to terminate court oversight based on a decision involving the governor’s office earlier this summer that “effectively directed the end” of such oversight of the 50-year-old decree.

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That’s a reference to a U.S. appeals court ruling this summer that Shakman oversight was “no longer warranted” — ending the consent decree and freeing Gov. J.B. Pritzker and future governors from such monitoring. Shakman was critical of the ruling.

Feibus highlighted ongoing issues at the court clerk’s office, describing the training on the employee handbook as “problematic” and lacking clarity in parts. When Feibus suggested edits or asked questions, she wrote the clerk sometimes ignored or rejected her.

Feibus also noted that the court clerk’s human resources department “remains understaffed” and that Feibus’ own team “appears largely to be operating as a part of Human Resources — as opposed to executing the monitoring and audit functions required by the Employment Plan.” The director of training position had been vacant since late July. A coordinator and two labor lawyer positions were also vacant.

“While it might be easier to ignore these issues,” Feibus wrote that she “would not be fulfilling” her responsibilities if she did.

In a statement, a Martinez spokesperson did not directly address the concerns Feibus raised in her final report but rather reiterated that the judge in the case granted the “substantial compliance” finding.