Wednesday, June 27, 2007

At Cook County Inc., Stroger Would Be Out

If Todd Stroger were head of a publicly-held company, and not chief of Cook County government, he'd be out of a job.
That's because no respectable, publicly-held concern would allow a CEO to withhold crucial information about his health from shareholders, especially if the company were at a critical juncture. The CEO would be asked to resign or be fired.
Apparently, the shareholders of Cook County government, which means the voters and taxpayers, don't get the same deal or regard.
Last week, Cook County Board President Stroger revealed that he is taking a short leave of absence after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. This is the first disclosure from Stroger about his condition, even though his cancer diagnosis was made nearly 10 months ago, prior to last fall's election.
Not telling the voters about his illness before the election was an appalling breach of trust--even by Cook County government's traditionally lax standards. Despite this being the most private of matters, Stroger had a duty to inform the public about his condition and then let them decide if he was strong enough to take on the job of running the government with an estimated $3 billion budget (give or take a $500 million shortfall!).
In the business world, CEOs and high-ranking executives have been pushed or canned for lesser offenses. Periodically, top-level executives face the ax because they ginned up their resumes, making false claims about schooling or other qualifications.
It happened last year at Radio Shack, when the CEO was caught lying about his education background. Same thing happened this week, when the publisher of the Duluth News Tribune was denied the publisher job at the Orange County Register in California because she fibbed on her resume.
Moreover, when the CEO of a publicly-traded company gets sick, the company's board reveals it immediately and installs an interim chief. That's what happened last year at Oakland-based Clorox Co., when its CEO suffered a heart attack.
In each case, managers moved decisively because they had to protect their shareholders' interest and their company's credibility on Wall Street. That's called corporate governance.
I know that government is not a business. And I realize and respect that Cook County government, in particular, fills voids that Corporate America will not enter, including providing public health services, law enforcement and the necessities of life to the area's poor.
Some will also argue that health matters are private and should not be disclosed. Others will say that a diagnosis is not always certain and it's prudent to let a disease take its course before deciding on treatment. The Stroger camp, and his defenders on the County Board, are making these arguments to explain why he didn't reveal his condition sooner.
I don't buy it.
I think Todd Stroger didn't say anything because he, or his very nervous backers, feared that full disclosure would destroy his chance of being elected. On top of that, they knew many voters were already unhappy at the way this group handled the announcement and circumstances surrounding the health of former Cook County President John Stroger, who suffered a debilitating stroke a week prior to the Democratic Party primary.
If Cook County were a business, the board would be taking steps to remove Stroger from office. In reality, we know that's not going to happen. In fact, there's real doubts that a legal mechanism even exists within Cook County government bylaws to impeach or remove a board president.
Personally, I hope Todd Stroger makes a speedy recovery and lives a long, full life.
But refusing to disclose his illness in a timely manner is no way to run a government, nor run for office.

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