Lois Weisberg
Lois Weisberg Credit: Leah Missbach Day

One thing about Chicago: even in the throes of a bone-chilling winter, it ain’t boring. There’s always something to keep us from dropping into hibernation. The Emanuel residency circus, for example, or the unruly turn of events at the usually staid Cultural Center. Who could’ve predicted that Department of Cultural Affairs head Lois Weisberg, an 85-year-old civic icon and Daley family favorite, would be going out with guns blazing this week rather than making a graceful exit along with the mayor when his term ends in May? Or that both she and the city would be blaming their divorce partly on that 40-year-old set of anti-patronage victories known as the Shakman Decrees?

Weisberg is clearly pissed at Daley, who, she’s said, made some major decisions affecting her fiefdom without bothering to consult her—first to privatize and possibly start charging admission for the city’s celebrated summer festivals and then to merge DCA with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. Weisberg opposed all of the above and took umbrage at not being in on the deliberations. But it wasn’t until after the announcement of a major DCA layoff in December—20 jobs cut from a department that had already lost nine in October—that she said she’d had enough and would be leaving on February 1.

The job losses, she said, are directly, if bafflingly attributable to Shakman.

City spokesman Pete Scales agrees, but says not to worry: though the DCA has been diminished, the jobs still exist. They’ve just taken a walk. Not even a walk, really, since the people who do them sit at the same desks in the same Cultural Center offices as before. In a little flash of Chicago magic, they’ve been put under the aegis of the Chicago Tourism Fund, a private nonprofit established in 1998 to operate in conjunction with the DCA. They just aren’t city jobs anymore and therefore won’t be subject to Shakman hiring and promotion rules.

Weisberg refused to talk to me for this column, but on January 20 she spoke with WBEZ music blogger Jim DeRogatis, who was on this story before anyone else and has tenaciously reported what he saw as part of a possible scheme to ensure that the festivals got privatized. Weisberg told DeRogatis that she couldn’t guarantee that things would be all right at the DCA even if she were to stay on there. “I haven’t got the faintest idea if it will work or not,” she said of the city’s anti-Shakman shell game. “And not only do I not know if it will work, I can’t explain it. It’s so hard to explain. It doesn’t make sense.” (The entire interview—in which Weisberg also criticizes the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, headed by another Daley family friend, Megan McDonald—is posted on DeRogatis’s blog and well worth a read.) The complexities of having to operate under Shakman make it, Weisberg said, “one of the worst things that ever has happened to the city.”

It didn’t seem that way back in 1969, when attorney Michael Shakman filed suit against the most notorious and entrenched political machine in the country, the Cook County Democratic Organization. Shakman, who’d lost his independent bid for a seat at the state constitutional convention, argued that independents didn’t have a fair chance against politicians who controlled thousands of jobs and doled them out to supporters, who’d often do campaign work on government time. Years of litigation resulted in a 1972 agreement that forbade punishing a public employee for political reasons and a 1983 prohibition on politically motivated hiring.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of patronage. The city just skirted Shakman by categorizing workers as independent contractors or using private temp agencies to staff full-time jobs. In 2005 a federal district court permanently barred such dodges and appointed a monitor—Chicago attorney Noelle Brennan—to make sure the city complied. In a report Brennan submitted November 5, 2009, she noted that the city’s own Office of Compliance had found “at least 174 people” working in violation of the Shakman Decree, in the Department of Cultural Affairs. These were contract employees “hired by city-affiliated” nonprofits but functioning as “common law” employees—i.e., working in city facilities under the supervision of city payrollers, using city equipment, and doing city jobs.

The nonprofit cited by Brennan as employing many of the DCA’s common law workers? The Chicago Tourism Fund, new home of the 20 jobs just cut loose from DCA. With a board originally headed by Weisberg and composed primarily of city officials, the CTF (whose new executive director, Dorothy Coyle, starts February 16) has 115 full-time employees, as many as 70 part-timers, and a budget this year of nearly $15 million. DCA spokesperson Joyce Rowe says 75 percent of that budget “comes from the City and State, primarily through hotel tax funds. The rest comes from corporate and foundation contributions and earned income.” According to financial statements from 2007 and 2008, private sector donations—from individuals, corporations, and foundations—amounted to less than 10 percent of CTF’s revenues.

Scales says that compliance with the Shakman regulations requires “demarcation between city and CTF employees,” so that members of one group aren’t supervising members of the other. This will be accomplished, he says, by the transfer of DCA jobs in public art, tourism, cultural programming, grant-making, event production, and retail to the “private” entity. The money has been “moved over,” he says, and the people who had the jobs were allowed to reapply for them. Although Scales initially said they may or may not be hired since the city “can’t tell [the CTF] what to do,” 18 of them have, in fact, landed on the CTF payroll.

Meanwhile, all but one of MOSE’s city jobs remain intact; as of January 1, they were moved to what is now called the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events—even though MOSE, more than DCA, has been considered to be, as DeRogatis put it, a “political dumping ground.”

So city money has been transferred to the CTF to pay people for doing what are pretty clearly still city jobs, but minus city benefits, Shakman grief—and Lois Weisberg. “I threw up my hands,” she told DeRogatis, “and said, ‘I can’t deal with this.'”