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Kadner: Preckwinkle says south suburbs a priority

Toni Preckwinkle Cook County Board President her office Chicago Ill. Thursday May 16 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President, at her office in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, May 16, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 24, 2013 6:26AM



Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wants to make it clear that she’s made the south suburbs a priority in her administration.

Documents provided by her office show that the county has invested $54.7 million over the past two years in programs benefiting the area.

Preckwinkle responded to my column Wednesday in which I wrote about Sheriff Tom Dart’s aggressive outreach program to some of the poorest communities in the Southland, such as Robbins, Dixmoor, Dolton and Ford Heights. Dart has not only offered to assist with police protection in those suburbs but has launched a unit to investigate allegations of political corruption.

Preckwinkle and her staff wanted to publicize the financial commitment the county has made to stabilize housing in the Southland, improve infrastructure and encourage job growth.

That includes $3.9 million to South Suburban PADS in Country Club Hills to construct an apartment building for the homeless, part of $19 million in housing investment during the past two years in the south suburbs.

There was also a $1.6 million grant to the Ford Heights City Service Organization that included oversight and conditions that prevented political interference in the project.

Preckwinkle didn’t say it, but the nearly $55 million was allotted despite Cook County budget cuts caused by a reduction in the sales tax and about $7 million less available in federal Community Development Block Grant funds. Those funds are earmarked for impoverished towns that can’t make investments in programs on their own.

The next-to-last paragraph of my column that upset Preckwinkle expressed the hope that she would focus as much attention on the financial plight of economically distressed communities as Dart has on their crime problems.

The point I was trying to make was that a political leader needs to start speaking out about the difficulties confronting such towns — some of the problems caused by economic issues beyond their control and others self-inflicted. Incompetence and corruption are far too common in many of these suburbs.

Preckwinkle replied that she’s the president of Cook County, not the mayor of the suburbs.

I understand that. And there have been several of her predecessors who failed to oversee county government well.

But Dart could make the same sort of argument. He’s the county sheriff, not the police chief of Robbins or Ford Heights.

And it would be a valid argument because the sheriff’s department also has budget restrictions and many responsibilities beyond patrolling the streets of unincorporated areas and a few suburbs.

My argument is there comes a time when responsible people in positions of authority need to speak out, to broaden their job descriptions, to improve the quality of life for their fellow man.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has co-authored a book that states more people who are living in poverty reside in the suburbs today rather than in big cities.

She notes that the suburbs are ill-equipped to deal with the sorts of social problems that big cities have struggled with for decades.

Suburbs with limited budgets need a quarterback — an entity or organization that will partner with such municipalities to support them and drive good policy decisions, according to Kneebone.

To some extent, that’s the role of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. And Preckwinkle noted that she’s working with SSMMA to support some economic development initiatives it has put forward.

But SSMMA is poorly equipped, by its organizational structure, to deal with political incompetence and corruption. It does not function as a government watchdog agency.

I was happy to hear Preckwinkle say that people from the Brookings Institution will soon be meeting with her staff.

Under state law, municipalities are required to file financial audits each year with the state comptroller’s office. But many (such as Ford Heights, Sauk Village and Dixmoor) have gone years in the past without filing audits.

Even when they do, the law makes no provisions for the comptroller to comment on the audits or take any action if the filings indicate problems. So it’s difficult to determine just how dire a financial situation many south suburbs are facing.

My frustration stems from writing about the same types of problems in the same municipalities for more than three decades. The situation has gotten worse, not better.

And simply reporting on scandals, doing “gotcha journalism,” is less than satisfactory. These towns need help.

Preckwinkle made the observation that when she was a Chicago alderman, people often complained about the quality of other aldermen. She was elected to represent her constituents, she said, and it was basically up to the people in other wards to elect better aldermen.

I’ve made that argument myself in the distant past — people get the representation they deserve.

I’m not as sure about that as I used to be.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of good, courageous people in Robbins, Dixmoor and other struggling suburbs who care about their families and their communities.

They simply don’t have the resources, the time or the knowledge to run a municipal government. And the pool of qualified candidates in such places, frankly, is rather limited.

Even Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to the U.S. president, surrounded by professionals, with billions of dollars in resources, seems to struggle running the city.

I don’t have the answers. But I know enough to ask for help.



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