Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker | Youtube screenshot
A court-appointed monitor of Illinois government hiring practices has cast some doubt over hiring practices conducted by Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration, saying in a recent court filing the governor’s office has clamped down on the monitor’s ability to communicate with the state agencies she is empowered to monitor.
Further, the monitor said the alleged impingement of those lines of communication have made it more difficult to finalize a plan to guide state hiring reforms.
On Feb. 6, Noelle C. Brennan, an attorney appointed by a federal judge to the role of special master, filed a report with U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier, updating the judge on the progress of the special master’s office’s talks with the governor’s office to create a plan to reform hiring practices within offices under the governor’s control.
Brennan noted progress was made through 2019 on that plan, following Pritzker’s inauguration as Illinois governor about a year ago.
However, Brennan said some of that progress has stalled, in part because the governor’s office has “diminished” the “cooperation and communication” the special master’s office had previously enjoyed.
“… That communication has been diminished by new restrictions placed on the Special Master’s ability to communicate freely with agency personnel,” Brennan wrote in the report. “Although it is within the province of the Governor’s office to impose such restrictions, the restrictions have impeded the progress being made to develop legally-compliant reforms to the State’s employment process.
“We believe these new restrictions imposed by the Governor’s Office are unproductive to the previously cooperative efforts of the parties to eliminate unlawful patronage, reform state employment practices and implement lasting improvements.”
A Pritzker spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment from The Cook County Record. However, the spokesperson told the Chicago Tribune Brennan’s characterization of the governor’s actions are “false” and the governor would respond with a court filing of his own later.
Brennan was appointed in 2014 by Judge Schenkier, who is overseeing ongoing proceedings in the case known as Shakman et. al. v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, et. al. First filed in 1969, that lawsuit produced a 1972 court decree prohibiting state agencies from making most hires based on political considerations, or patronage. Schenkier had empowered Brennan to launch an investigation into hiring practices at the Illinois Department of Transportation, after the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General had uncovered hiring irregularities under the administration of Democratic former Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn, but had declared no evidence could be found that Quinn and his senior directors had direct knowledge or leading roles in the improper hiring.
In an earlier report, Brennan had said she doubted that conclusion.
The report focused primarily on dozens of “staff assistants” hired at IDOT from 2009-2014, most at the insistence of staff and directors ultimately answering to Gov. Quinn, Ill. House Speaker Michael Madigan or other state lawmakers.
The hires had exploited a special exemption, allowed for making political hires in policy-making positions. However, the report found most were hired despite having little or no qualifications for the duties they were supposedly hired to perform, or were hired into positions that should not have been considered exempt.
In the years since filing that report, the special master’s office has worked with the state on reforming those hiring practices, but also on broadening the scope beyond IDOT and its “staff assistants.”
In her Feb. 6 report, Brennan said her office and state agencies were working toward completion of a comprehensive employment plan for the entire state government. Brennan noted that process had been in the works since “at least 2018,” when Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was in office.
Pritzker defeated Rauner in November 2018.
Brennan noted the process had continued through 2019, after Pritzker assumed office.
“In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2019, to the Special Master’s office and the Office of Executive Inspector General,” the Illinois Central Management Services department “identified ‘numerous problems with the current hiring process’ including: hiring cycles of 250+ days; agencies’ inability to provide core services; lack of quality candidates; an inability to hire individuals not currently employed by the State; Shakman non-compliance; lack of electronic and standardized systems that are easily auditable, among other things,” Brennan wrote.
“These, along with other deficiencies identified by the Special Master’s office, HEM and the Plaintiffs have resulted in a long-term collaboration among the Parties to replace and reform the State’s employment practices through a Comprehensive Employment Plan.”
The state then followed with a proposed comprehensive plan in November 2019, the report notes.
However, Brennan said work still remains on installing that plan.
Specifically, she chided CMS for failing so far to produce rules and guidelines needed to “address certain current systemic practices that are vulnerable to manipulation” or could produce violations of the Shakman decree.
Brennan noted these include:
- An over-reliance on “reachability of candidates,” or whether the state deems a job candidate “eligible for appointment to a vacant position.” Brennan said this reliance on “reachability” effectively tilts the field in favor of current or former state employees, and blocks many outside candidates from being considered;
- Promotions completed through “temporary or interim assignments.” These promotions allow state agencies, directors and others to sidestep oversight from CMS or others, and dispenses with the need to make the promotion process competitive. The report noted that, from 2010-2014, “more than 1,600 employees” at IDOT “were Temporarily Assigned into higher paying positions.” “It gives agency personnel unfettered discretion to hand pick individuals for promotion, outside of any competitive process and to the exclusion of other interested and qualified State employees,” Brennan wrote. “These individuals assume more desirable and higher paid positions without any competition from other internal qualified applicants. External candidates are excluded entirely.”
- And, the hiring of “failed” candidates under “Personal Services Contracts.” Brennan noted under this practice, state agencies “can simply decide” that a hiring process has “failed” and then later hire “seemingly preferred individuals to perform the duties of the unfilled job through Personal Services Contracts.”