undefined(Originally published as column by Greg Hinz in Crain’s Chicago Business.)

In Cook County, land of clout and connections, voters rightly are suspicious—especially when folks from one ward or neighborhood run an office for a long time. Are things what they seem, or are we too cynical to recognize real change when it occurs?

For a partial answer to that question, the Better Government Assn. and I have been looking at employment data in the Cook County sheriff’s office, where incumbent Tom Dart has earned a reputation as a reformer. Specifically, we looked at where office staffers live.

We found that the 6,431 deputy sheriffs, jail guards, administrators and the like whose home ZIP codes were disclosed in response to BGA’s Freedom of Information request are far more likely to live in or near the 19th Ward on the Southwest Side. That proportion—one in four—is especially high among the office’s best-paid employees, each of whom earns at least $96,337 a year.

Would it surprise you to learn that the 19th Ward is home to Mr. Dart and his predecessor, Mike Sheahan, who held office for 16 years before stepping down in 2006? The question is: Who did what, and is anything changing?

Let’s start with the facts.

There are approximately 185 ZIP codes wholly or mostly within Cook County, 59 of them in Chicago proper. Four are wholly or partly in the 19th Ward or suburban Oak Lawn, which is right across Pulaski Road from the 19th Ward and is home to lots of people who used to live in neighborhoods like Beverly and Mount Greenwood in the 19th Ward.

Some 585 sheriff’s office employees, or 9%, live in those four ZIP codes. Another 375 live in three ZIP codes just to the north, strongholds of Democratic powers such as Mike Madigan and Bill Lipinski. The trend is much more pronounced as you move up the food chain.

Of the 102 top-paid workers (it’s 102 because we analyzed the top 100, but three tied for the last slot), 25 happen to live in the four ZIP codes in or adjacent to the 19th Ward. The top ZIP code, both in terms of total employees and top-paid employees, is 60655, which happens to include Mr. Dart’s home.

Now, Mr. Dart isn’t exactly thrilled to talk about this stuff.

In a verrry tense interview, the sheriff offered his own statistics, underlined his reform credentials and repeatedly suggested he wasn’t responsible for hiring decisions made before he was sheriff.

For instance, he said he is the only county official ruled by a judge to be substantially in compliance with the Shakman anti-patronage decree. Helen Burke, counsel for the sheriff’s office’s independent Shakman compliance administrator, confirms that, saying she has received “exceptional” cooperation from Mr. Dart.
The question is: Who did what, and is anything changing?

Mr. Dart notes that he and some other 19th Ward Democratic factions never have been close. He says only 8% of those he’s hired come from the four ZIP codes and adds, “I can’t speak to what happened before I became sheriff.” An aide notes that law-enforcement personnel tend to cluster in a small number of neighborhoods on the Northwest and Southwest sides.

On the other hand, before getting the big chair, Mr. Dart was Mr. Sheahan’s chief of staff for three-plus years. And of those 25 top-paid employees, 13 are “policy” workers and thus Shakman-exempt; 11 have donated to Mr. Dart’s political fund during the past decade.

Mr. Sheahan was not available for comment. But, as BGA President Andy Shaw puts it, “This is what happens when politicians from one ward or geographic area control an office for so long. . . .The result is an unfair distribution of good jobs.”

He adds, “Sheriff Dart claims to be reform-minded, so we hope that he’s reaching out to a lot more ZIP codes to fill the vacancies.”

That would be nice. One top job in four, in an area that covers perhaps 3% of the county? That’s hard to ignore.

Read more of Greg Hinz on his blog.