By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday released Chicago from federal oversight of its hiring practices after finding it in "substantial compliance" with a decades-old decree to prevent illegal patronage.
U.S. District Judge Sidney Schenkier made the ruling following a joint request from both attorneys for the nation's third-largest city and lawyer Michael Shakman, who sued the city in 1969 to stop the practice of hiring workers based on political ties.
Shakman's lawsuit led to the nationally influential "Shakman decrees," which banned patronage hiring and firing, with exemptions for certain positions such as executive and policy posts. Shakman told the court that the city no longer has the policy, custom or practice of hiring based on political factors.
The ruling is a victory for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration says it requires employees to cooperate with investigations and educates workers on legal hiring. It also will save the city money on court fees.
"Changing a long entrenched culture of patronage is generally not a revolutionary process but an evolutionary one..." Schenkier said. "This evolutionary process has taken a solid footing in the city of Chicago."
Emanuel told the court that in the past hiring was based on "who you know instead of what you know," which eroded public trust in government.
The federal monitor has been in place since 2005, when at Shakman's request the city was held in civil contempt as a result of criminal investigations of job rigging.
Patronage hiring, or the "spoils system," had historically been the foundation of U.S. political machines, which empowered bosses like the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. People who did work for politicians could get government jobs for themselves or their relatives.
The city's inspector general, Joseph Ferguson, a former federal prosecutor, will continue the job of watching over the city's hiring practices.
Eight people spoke at the hearing in objection to the city's release from the court monitor, saying it was too soon.
"Nothing's changed," said city worker Bruce Randazzo. "The only thing that's changing is the names."
Schenkier said substantial compliance does not mean perfection, and that vigilance must continue, but that the city had through its reforms earned release from court oversight. He noted that both Shakman and federal monitor Noelle Brennan were a "tough crowd to satisfy."
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jim Loney)