Chicago mayor builds cabinet post by post

Chicago Mayor Harold Washington is a man who prides himself on making his own decisions. Yet no one now knows better than he how impossible it is to run a large city single-handedly.

It's the reason he has spent most of his first two months in office fighting the City Council majority's swift move to reorganize committees and rules to its own liking. He appealed the legality of that power grab all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court, and lost.

Now the mayor supports what may be the final legal challenge to the action. A civil rights suit filed this week by several black community groups and one black alderman contends that the council majority discriminated against the largely black minority by making its decisions on reorganization behind closed doors and awarding only three committee chairmanships to blacks.

Though now acutely aware of the difficulties of trying to govern alone, Mayor Washington also has taken his time with personnel appointments. He has filled many of the positions on his personal staff, but he has made few cabinet-level appointments.

Part of the holdup was the delay getting a court exemption for 1,200 city jobs (including about 800 under the mayor's direct control) from the so-called Shakman decree here that bars hiring and firing employees on a political basis.

But William Sampson, a Northwestern University sociologist who has been serving on the mayor's transition team, insists that the mayor can only gain by the delay. It gives him time to set policies first and then find those who can enthusiastically follow them. Mr. Sampson says that former Mayor Jane Byrne tried to choose people before policies were set and ended up with a mediocre team.

''You can't impose policies on high-level people - anybody worth anything usually has some ideas of his own,'' he says.

There is virtual agreement in this city that the mayor's transition team - a blend of business and academic experts - is of the highest caliber. Its members have been asked to stay on for six months rather than the original six weeks. But Grayson Mitchell, the mayor's press secretary who was once a reporter for the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, concedes that while the mayor may ''try to put the touch'' on some transition team members, few would probably be willing to take the sharp salary cut to join the team.

So far Mayor Washington has specifically chosen to keep some holdovers from past administrations. Many onlookers view as one of his best appointments budget director David F. Schulz, a deputy commissioner of public works under Mayor Byrne. Charles Pounian, a solid professional, has been asked to stay on in the post he has held since 1976 as city personnel director. The mayor also has chosen a professional administrator with a long record of city service - Lester Dickinson - to head up the Streets and Sanitation Department.

But in his limited staff appointments so far, Mayor Washington has turned to outsiders with a record of community activism. Joseph Gardner, who at one time worked with the Woodlawn Organization here and more recently with Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, is the mayor's new commissioner of neighborhoods. And the city's new corporation counsel is James D. Montgomery, an extremely able trial lawyer who represented the survivors and families of victims in the 1969 raid on a West Side apartment where Black Panther members were staying.

The mayor, who has promised to appoint a team of deputy mayors at the urging of his transition team, reached out to his top aide from his days as a congressman for a chief of staff. William Ware, a lawyer who once worked for the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, has a deliberately low-key style and is generally regarded as able. The problem, some critics say, is his limited political experience, which could prove a drawback for the scope of the job.

''He's competent, but he'd be better in an administrative job with a more limited scope of responsibility,'' says one veteran political analyst here who asked not to be named. ''Washington should have chosen an absolute superstar for the top job - someone that no one would mind taking orders from.''

''So far Washington has no real planners or strategic thinkers on his staff, '' says another analyst who asked not to be named. ''You need not just competent , well-intentioned people who can maintain the status quo but people with many, many skills which actually match the jobs they hold.''

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