- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Illinois’ political-hiring rules are complicated by union representation, defeating the purpose of ensuring most government jobs are open to everyone, not just those with clout, a federal court-appointed monitor said Wednesday.

The monitor’s preliminary report, part of a federal lawsuit by anti-patronage activist Michael Shakman against the Illinois Department of Transportation, said Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration should freeze hires and transfers in some IDOT positions until conflicting hiring and union rules are rectified.

Special Master Noelle Brennan filed the account in the lawsuit targeting improper political hiring at IDOT under former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn. It said the agency should identify every position in which an employee theoretically can be hired or fired at will but also has collective-bargaining rights that restrict terminations.

Rauner, who’s making noise in union-friendly Illinois with plans to control labor’s influence, balked at the special master’s proposal to freeze activity in those jobs. Rauner’s office said that while the Republican is “committed to reversing” illegal hiring, the proposal would mean leaving critical IDOT positions vacant.

The freeze was one of a handful of proposals put forward by Brennan, a Chicago attorney. Shakman’s lawsuit preceded a finding by the state executive inspector general that the sprawling agency had for a decade circumvented political hiring rules set forth in a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling known as “Rutan.”

Rutan prohibits offering a routine job as a political favor when the job doesn’t require handling sensitive information. A Rutan-exempt job is one in which loyalty to the boss is a must - such as those with confidential information or public spokesmen - so a governor may hire or fire whomever.

The practice of offering as a political perk IDOT jobs that required only mowing lawns or answering telephones began under Democrat Blagojevich, who’s now imprisoned for political corruption. The inspector’s report last fall indicated it accelerated under Quinn, whom Republican Rauner beat in November. Quinn said at the time he was unaware of any skullduggery.

Rutan’s goal of preventing such hiring gets murky when an at-will job carries union representation - an “inherent conflict,” Brennan said.

“Placing Rutan-exempt employees into unionized positions with contractual rights concerning termination and transfer violates the fundamental tenets of Rutan - that an employee can be hired (and fired) based on political affiliation.”

Rauner’s office said the proposed freeze “could cripple some current IDOT operations.” For example, the administration said it needs to immediately hire four lawyers - positions that are exempt from Rutan but union-covered.

Brennan also said IDOT should identify every position that is supposed to be covered by the Rutan rules insulating employment decisions from politics. She also said the agency should maintain accurate job descriptions and ensure the people in the positions are doing what’s described. It should improve training for those engaging in Rutan-related hiring and change the way it characterizes some jobs, she said.

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Contact John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor

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