Controversial Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne inherited many things from this city's legendary "Boss," Mayor Richard J. Daley. Perhaps the most unwelcome was Daley's 1975 personnel code, which over the past five years has steadily eroded city hall's power to pass out patronage jobs.
Last week, however, the 50-member city council in a surprise 36-to-8 vote threw out merit hiring. The new council ordinance hands Mayor Byrne full hiring and firing power over 14,000 city workers, making 24,000 out of the city's 41, 000 municipal jobs subject to political patronage. If the ordinance survives challenges from a variety of civic groups threatening legal action, only policemen and firemen will remain subject to Civil Service competitive testing procedures.
Mrs. Byrne denied advance knowledge of the council action, but she fully supports the ordinance. She explained that ending competitive testing for city jobs will benefit minority workers unfairly denied jobs in the past simply because of their poor reading and writing abilities.
alderman Wilson Frost, a black sponsor of the new ordinance, charged that "the city's personnel code, as administered, is impractical and unfair in an urban society where minorities are compelled to compete through written examinations with better-educated citizens for many entry-level, unskilled city jobs that require only reasonable manual skills."
Reaction from the city has been swift and angry. Political observers charge that Byrne orchestrated the return to a spoils system in order to rebuild the city's demoralized Democratic machine. She faces a tough reelection battle in 1983. One of her chief challengers is richard Daley, son of the late Mayor Daley and a natural inheritor of the Democratic machine his father built.
Chicago's two major newspapers have blasted Byrne and the council repeatedly since the Jan. 13 vote. The Sun-times editorialized that "this cowardly sneak attack on merit hiring" means that "the only test will be whether the applicant can produce a letter from an alderman or ward committeeman."
Calling the measure "a cheap, cynical betrayal of the city for the good of its politicians," a Chicago Tribune editorial explained that "persons employed by the city may now be hired directly by the major's office, without taking tests or meeting any merit requirements, and may be fired without hearings."
The Chicago Tribune also stated that "the action may cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, since grant programs generally require grantees to show Equal Employment Opportunity and merit- hiring systems."
The two newspapers sponsored separate public opinion polls, each showing more than 75 percent of those contacted opposed the measure.
The Chicago Bar Association, the Better Government Association, Common Cause, the Chicago League of Women Voters, and other groups have launched a joint drive to restore the merit-hiring system. City personnel director Charles Pounian and Hay Associates, the firm called in by Mayor Byrne to redesign city hiring practices, have criticized the council action.
Yet an attempt to call a special city council meeting to reconsider last week's ordinance failed to draw a quorum.