Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Being cautious? Or careless?

There are times when I’m not sure whether to think that our government officials are being cautious and protective of the tax dollars they’re spending – or if their unwillingness to rush into something is just evidence that they don’t have a clue as to what they’re talking about.

That was definitely the impression I gained Tuesday from watching the Cook County Board in action.

THE ISSUE OF the moment was approving an item that would have allowed the county to seek bids for, “the purchase of uniforms and clothing for various county departments.”

When I first read that on an agenda, my gut reaction was to wonder, “What departments?!?”

So it was with a jolt of excitement that I heard county board member Deborah Sims start off debate on this issue by asking the very blunt, and straightforward, question.

“What departments are we talking about?”

GEE. A GOVERNMENT official wanting to have a clue as to what is going on. In fact, a government official refusing to just cast a knee-jerk vote in favor of something – even though it really was just a procedural step in the whole purchasing process.

But before you start using e-mail to send me all your horror stories about Sims and her past government actions, this commentary isn’t about to become a piece praising the county board member from the Far South Side and surrounding suburbs.

In fact, it’s not a piece that will make anyone happy – except for maybe the malcontents who like to complain about government and get their joy from watching our public officials screw things up.

I don’t, because I realize it ultimately harms our interests and reflects badly upon us. After all, we voted for Sims and all the other members of the Cook County Board. Her gaffes are our gaffes.

WHAT ENSUED IN response to Sims’ question was a back-and-forth in which the bureaucrats who handle government purchases for the county government tried to avoid giving a direct answer.

“Various departments” was the initial response. Upon some pushing by Sims, one such department was identified as the sheriff’s police.

Which led to some confusion since the sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement personnel are required to purchase their own uniforms – with eventual reimbursement for their expenses, provided they don’t get carried away with their sartorial demands.

After much more squabbling, it eventually came out that what was being considered here were those deliberately-hideous jump suits that inmates at the Cook County Jail and other facilities are required to wear so that they stand out in a crowd of people.

WHAT THIS IS about is seeking bids from companies to sell the county the khaki clothing that inmates must wear.

But county purchasing agent Maria de Lourdes Coss said, “we do not want to limit it,” because there’s also the chance that they may include bids for uniforms worn by the civilian personnel who work for the sheriff – such as the janitorial staff.

It was a lot of squabbling over what should have been a very straightforward issue. We do, after all, have to clothe those inmates while they are in the custody of the county. It’s one of those dreaded, but very necessary, expenses.

And Sims was legitimate in her indignation upon finally being given a straight answer, saying of the written description provided to county officials, “this doesn’t tell us anything,” adding later, “you’re not telling us who these departments are.”

AGREEING WITH HER was county board member Robert Steele, who said, “we want to be quite aware of what we’re voting on.”

In fact, Sims at one point tried to postpone a vote on this measure (which is just about seeking the bids, it’s not about actually awarding a contract) until a future meeting.

Yet that is where Sims goes from being the good-government aggressive-type to being the official who probably didn’t have a clue what she was being told.

Because when she was finally given the explanation, she ultimately voted for the measure to seek bids – even though she admits she’s still upset about the lack of details provided.

“I THINK THEY should give us a better explanation, but this will suffice for today,” she said in backing the measure. Was this just a backing-down to cover up her confusion? It sure seems that way.

So in the end, the routine measure got a routine vote of support – everybody said “aye.” If anybody opposed this measure – which seeks bids for a one-year contract to sell the county inmate uniforms, with three one-year renewal options – they kept it to themselves.

Which in the end means this was county business, as usual.

That may be the real key to comprehending the way government at any level operates. Something does not have to be illegal in order to be bad. Sometimes, it’s the most innocuous moments that are the most cheesy in character.


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