A powerful public workers’ labor union has sued the Cook County Sheriff, saying members of the Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board – whom the sheriff essentially appoints - aren’t spending enough time in office, potentially undermining all disciplinary cases the board has handled against deputies and correctional officers represented by the union since 2005.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, filed a complaint Nov. 9 in Cook County Circuit Court against Sheriff Thomas J. Dart and the Merit Board as well as its officers, Chairman James P. Nally, Vice Chairman Brian Brazier, board Secretary John J. Dalicandro, and board members Kim Widup and Vincent T. Winters.
According to the complaint, issues with merit board members serving less than the statutorily required six-year terms date to at least March 2005. The complaint pointed to 16 appointments since 2005 that, when they were made, extended fewer than six years into the future. The shortest term cited ended up being four months and 15 days; the longest was five years and eight months. Some of the terms at issue were reappointments that established a new six-year term, effectively cutting the standing appointment short of the six-year window.
In addition to the requirement for six-year terms, the state law that created the Merit Board also said the terms must be staggered and the members — up to nine — must be split among political party lines with no party holding a majority of more than one. The sheriff submits nominees to the Cook County Board of Commissioners for appointment approval.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
To levy a disciplinary punishment stronger than a 30-day suspension against an employee of the sheriff’s office, the sheriff must bring charges before the Merit Board, which can uphold or dismiss the charges or reduce the proposed penalty.
“The actions of defendants with respect to the length of the terms of (Merit Board) members and with respect to the staggering of their terms have undermined the independence of Board members and the ability of the Board members to properly weigh the evidence and the applicable legal principles in the cases that have come before the Board,” the union asserted in its complaint.
The union said it is currently representing 16 members from four local units in discipline grievances before the Merit Board and has been involved in more than two dozen such cases since 2005. Since the board was “improperly constituted at all times since 2005,” per the union, “the decisions it has rendered in cases involving employees represented by AFSCME were invalid.”
Of current members, the union noted Widup is serving a term that will only be four years and eight months at expiration.
The union said the public interest favors a court forcing injunctive relief because any future grievance resolutions could easily be overturned, forcing employee reinstatement and back pay that costs more than keeping the worker employed. It also said employees subject to proceedings before an illegally constituted Merit Board deprives such workers of their federal due process rights.
In addition to asking the court to declare the Merit Board improperly constituted, the union wants the court to formally invalidate all decisions regarding AFSCME members since 2005, to declare the de facto officer doctrine should not be applied and injunctions barring Dart from bringing discipline charges before the Merit Board until such time as every member is serving a six-year term.
The union is represented in the matter by Dowd, Bloch, Bennett, Cervone, Auerbach & Yokich.