• Alex Nitkin
    AUG 08, 2022

    Foxx’s ‘rudderless’ office needs reorganization as county offices scramble to hire, retiring commissioner says

    Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at an April 2022 news conference. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx hasn’t properly set up her sprawling office to withstand the barrage of high-profile resignations that have left prosecutors reeling, a senior Cook County commissioner said Friday.

    North-suburban Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13), who ran unsuccessfully for State’s Attorney in 2008, called the mass exodus from Foxx’s office a symptom of the “great resignation” that has stretched payrolls thin across Cook County offices and in workplaces across the country.

    Still, Foxx is in a uniquely tough spot — and she and her predecessors deserve part of the blame for maintaining a top-down staffing structure as the office has multiplied in size, Suffredin said on The Daily Line’s CloutCast podcast. He noted that office’s army of nearly 1,000 prosecutor positions is almost five times its size during the early 1970s, when Suffredin worked a Cook County public defender. 

    “It's a huge operation,” Suffredin said of the State’s Attorney’s Office. “But one of the problems that I see, and the fact that these resignations of long-term people are getting so much publicity, is that the office does not have a spreading-out of authority and experience.” 

    Foxx acknowledged during mid-year budget hearings last month that her office, which was budgeted more than 1,200 full-time positions for this year, saw 235 resignations between July 2021 and July 2022. About 183 positions remained vacant as of earlier this month, including 141 assistant state’s attorney positions.   

    Related: Labor crunch casts shadow over Cook County’s sunny 2023 budget forecast 

    And that was before James Murphy, a veteran of the office who oversaw prosecutions of murders and other serious crimes, penned a bitter letter of resignation this week. 

    “I can no longer work for this administration. I have zero confidence in their leadership,” Murphy wrote in an email to prosecutors that was first reported by the website CWB Chicago and then obtained by the Tribune. “This administration is more concerned with political narratives and agendas than with victims and prosecuting violent crime. That is why I can’t stay any longer.” 

    In the letter, Murphy accused Foxx of inaction in the face of sky-high vacancies. 

    “If this administration was truly concerned with effectively fighting violent crime, then they would fully staff those courtrooms and units,” he wrote. “Not create more useless policy positions on the executive staff at the expense of hiring more [assistant state’s attorneys] who can work in the trenches.” 

    Foxx wrote in a staff newsletter on Monday that “significant staff turnover is not unique to our office,” citing nationwide trends. But she added that the State’s Attorney’s Office “remains a premiere employment opportunity for aspiring prosecutors seeking to make meaningful change in one of the largest and most complex court systems in the country.” 

    She told commissioners during her budget hearing that her office made 13 new hires in June and has 52 “pending employment offers,” for a total of 100 new hires projected during the course of 2022.   

    Still, high-profile resignations like Murphy’s left deep scars in the office and have made it harder to recruit because the office is “still very much five, six people running the whole operation,” Suffredin said.  

    “And you can't do that in a county this size,” Suffredin said. “I think that's the problem she's running into now. As those key people leave, the other people haven't been put in the position, haven't been trained, haven't been given the opportunity to take the leadership role.” 

    He acknowledged that Foxx’s office is hardly the only workforce being strained by high turnover. But she needs to build a wider pipeline if she wants to get the office back on track, he said. 

    “I think it's the organizational issues, and I suppose you have to be critical of leadership, because it's too dependent upon the five people at the top,” Suffredin said. “And if those five people decide to leave, then you're rudderless for a period of time.” 

    Staff shortages are “the thing that keeps me up at night” as the Evanston-based commissioner prepares to retire in December after 20 years in office, he said, citing an especially deep strain in the $4 billion Cook County Health system. 

    Stroger Hospital was budgeted 466 new full-time staff positions for 2022 as county finance officials seized on federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars to beef up payrolls. But the health system lost ground instead, leaving more than one-in-four of the hospital’s approximately 4,600 employee positions vacant by July. 

    “We're spending $20 million a month to buy registry nurses, lab technicians, physical therapists for the hospital system,” Suffredin said. “And we've got a large number of jobs there.” 

    The county Board of Commissioners approved a measure (22-3501) last month directing county finance officials to devise a program for retention bonuses and recruitment bonuses to help boost payrolls. Despite the long-term benefits of a county pension, many young nurses and other staffers are being lured by higher upfront offers, Suffredin said. 

    And the bonuses are far cheaper than the millions the county is shelling out for temporary labor, which Suffredin called unsustainable. 

    “Eventually we're going to run out of ARPA money and CountyCare money that's keeping the hospital going,” he said. “And once that's gone, they'll again need money from the county, and I don't know where that's all going to come from.” 

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