As printed in the May 17, 2008 edition of the Daily Herald:
Let public in on public defender hearing
Few people, even the most ardent advocates of open government, would argue that personnel evaluations ought generally to be conducted in open public meetings. But there are times …Take the case of Cook County Public Defender Ed Burnette. Here we have a civil servant whose job is specifically designed to be independent of politics facing the possibility of being fired for purely political reasons.It won’t surprise you to learn who is trying to fire him in such circumstances. That would be Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. Nor, sadly, will the specifics of Burnette’s case surprise anyone remotely familiar with the brazen cynicism of Cook County government. Burnette’s job is on the line because he challenged Stroger at least twice. First by filing suit to assert his independence when the Cook County board president ordered him to trim the size of his staff, then by objecting when Stroger placed on Burnette’s payroll an employee who did no work for the public defender and was answerable only to the county board president.For such determination, Burnette was labeled insubordinate and Stroger set a hearing for his firing. The hearing is required because state law pointedly distinguishes the public defender position from every other administrative role in the county. The public defender’s office exists to ensure justice for some of society’s most vulnerable individuals — the indigent accused of crimes but lacking the means to defend themselves. Such a function, the law wisely realizes, must be protected against the whims of fickle politics, and the person leading it cannot be constantly answering to political rather than legal demands.Thus, the job is established as a fixed six-year appointment, and any attempt to remove the public defender requires a formal hearing. If a political powerbroker aiming to find a new department in which to stash patronage workers wants to remove an impediment, he at least has to show a legitimate job-based cause.Does Stroger have job-based justification here? Well, Burnette certainly has defied his authority. But the question, as Burnette’s suit seeks to clarify, is what authority the public defender has defied.The answer to that question ought to be left to the courts. Curiously, Stroger seems unable to wait that long. Burnette has only a year remaining on his appointment, so the county board president will be able to name whatever puppet he likes soon enough, as long as the person isn’t so clearly incompetent that even the board members in Stroger’s pocket can’t vote to confirm.Why then is Burnette’s dismissal so urgent? What offense has he committed that justifies challenging the critical independence built into the nature of his office? Burnette himself has asked these questions and wants the county board to let them be presented on the public stage. We do, too.This is not a case of violating an employee’s privacy. It’s a case either of the county board president’s simple assertion of power or of the public defender’s inability to accomplish the job he’s been doing for five years. The public should get a free and open opportunity to watch the proceeding and judge for itself.