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Doing a Little Bit of Everything: The Work of a Cook County Commissioner

Ever wonder what a Cook County Commissioner actually does? ChicagoTalks reporters shed light on county board activities.

“Most people don’t know what a commissioner does or who a commissioner is until they need them,” said Cristina Saldana, director of operations for Commissioner John Fritchey.

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Stemming from this concern is the decision to reduce the number of meetings from 17 to 11 in 2014, sparking debate among commissioners at the Cook County Board meeting Dec. 4.

Commissioners fear their constituents attribute their work to the number of board meetings. But, a lot of work is done in a commissioner’s district office, a job more demanding than people realize, said Earlean Collins, commissioner for the 1st District.

“Most of the public doesn’t even understand the number of hours that many of us put into our work doing county board business not here at the regular board meetings,” Collins said.

So what do board members do?

It may come as a surprise to some that the board handles $3.5 billion of taxpayer money.

Board members make laws concerning public health and safety for 5.1 million people, said Brian Ceci, director for Commissioner John Fritchey.

Each commissioner represents 300,000 to 350,000 people in their district, and their salary is $85,000, said Saldana.

After talking to 11 county officials, many were able to talk about the issues they deal with, but not the specifics of their work.

Janet Trowbridge, senior policy analyst for Commissioner Gregg Goslin, said they work with the high school students, creating a Career Day for students to think of their future.

In contrast to Trowbridge’s emphasis, Commissioner Joan Patricia Murphy deals with “deer eating shrubs and floods disrupting roadways,” Pat Caplis said, a staff member for Murphy.

Cook County Board meeting
Photo by: Maria Castellucci

Commissioner Bridget Gainer said she focuses on pension reform, the juvenile detention center, population and foreclosures. She also said the county is in charge of property taxes and helps constituents file taxes.

Jesús García, commissioner for Cook County’s 7th District, said a majority of his work is dealing with constituents who do not speak English.

“Language access and language barriers are an important part of the services we provide,” Garcia said. “People come to us for everything [such as] seeking information translation, and orientation about who their alderman is. We do a lot of referral of services.”

Vanessa Dennis, chief of staff for 3rd District Commissioner Jerry Butler, said their office works with local law enforcement to combat gun violence in Englewood.

“It just so happens the commissioners end up being the first instance people think about when they think of the county,” Saldana said. “They have done a good job in letting the residents know that they are there for them.”

The next Cook County Board meeting will be held at 9 a.m. Jan. 15 at City Hall, 118 N. Clark St.

For more information on each commissioner, visit the Cook County website.

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