Referendum okayed on merging county offices


Northwest Side county commissioners voted to place a binding referendum on the ballot that will allow voters to decide if the Cook County Recorder of Deeds Office should be merged into the Cook County Clerk’s Office.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 10-5 on June 29 in favor of a proposal by county Commissioner John Fritchey (D-12) to place the referendum on the November ballot, with Commissioners Luis Arroyo Jr., John Daley, Bridget Gainer, Jesus Garcia, Gregg Goslin, Sean Morrison, Timothy Schneider, Peter Silvestri and Larry Suffredin joining Fritchey in voting in favor of the measure.

Commissioners Richard Boykin, Jerry Butler, Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims and Robert Steele voted against the measure, and Commissioners Joan Patricia Murphy and Jeffrey Tobolski were absent.

If a simple majority of voters approve the referendum, the offices would be consolidated, eliminating the position of the county recorder, in 2020.

Fritchey said that the vote was historic for county government.

"For the first time in 44 years, the public will have the change to shrink county government to a level that will not only save close to $1 million annually but will make getting records from the county a less cumbersome and more user-friendly experience," Fritchey said in a statement.

The recorder of deeds keeps records of land transactions, maintains records of the Uniform Commercial Code, tax liens and lien releases, and records and maintains other records. The county clerk maintains vital records, administers elections, maintains county tax maps and calculates tax rates.

The ordinance says that that fact that the "functions that are narrowly drawn and administrative in nature provides an excellent opportunity for consolidation with another office."

"It’s one thing to talk about making government do more with less, it’s another thing to actually do it," Fritchey said. "Today’s vote gets us one major step closer to right-sizing county government, and I wholeheartedly trust and believe the public will overwhelmingly support the largest government restructuring in Cook County history."

Because Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough is African American and County Clerk by David Orr who is white, some have said that the measure is racially motivated. The commissioners who voted against the proposal all are black.

However, local commissioners said that the ordinance is not an attack on Yarbrough or politically motivated but that it is designed to streamline county government.

County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13) said that it was unfortunate that some people attempted to paint the issue as racial.

"This is an opportunity to give the people some control over their government," Suffredin said. He said that the recorder of deeds is an administrative office and not a policy office.

"Jesse White, who was a recorder of deeds, used to joke that it was only the office of the recorder of good deeds," Suffredin said. "It’s an office that is the official bookkeeper of properties so that nobody can steal your property."

Suffredin said that he voted against a similar measure in the past because he felt that it would have been a referendum on the elected recorder of deeds then and that now it is a referendum on what is best for the county.

"It’s not personal," Suffredin said. "Four years ago, maybe it would look like a referendum on her abilities, but now it’s a referendum on the county, and I think it has a good chance of passing."

"People who make this a racial issue are simply wrong," Suffredin said. "The office has had African-American leaders in the past, from Carol Moseley Braun, Jesse White, Eugene Moore and now Karen Yarbrough. Does it mean it’s an African-American office? I don’t think so."

Fritchey said that he sponsored the legislation because the county board has to look for ways to modernize and deliver more efficient services to the public while using existing resources.

"There is no question that over the last 5 years we have created a more responsible county government, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t do more," Fritchey said. "Our goal should not be a system that maintains the status quo and expects taxpayers to foot the ever-increasing bill.

"It’s time that we redouble our efforts to tighten our belt. Even though the savings from this merger may seem small compared to the overall budget, savings are savings, and we owe it to taxpayers to save wherever, and whenever, we can."

When Fritchey sponsored the same resolution in 2012, it failed by one vote. Four new members have joined the board since then.

Fritchey said that the last time voters had a chance to reduce the size of county government was in 1972 via a referendum to eliminate the elected position of county coroner and replace it with an appointed medical examiner. Voters approved that measure by a 9-1 margin, according to Fritchey.

Fritchey’s previous proposal had the support of Orr but was opposed by the incoming Yarbrough. Fritchey said that consolidating the office was advocated by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in her campaign for the office.

"When she first ran for office, President Preckwinkle said she would ‘spearhead a reduction in Cook County’s current separately elected offices’," Fritchey said. "There is no better, or other, opportunity for her to fulfill her stated goal than by supporting this resolution.

"Additionally, in recent weeks, the president asked that commissioners put forth cost-saving proposals for the county. As such, I would hope that this resolution would have both her support and efforts towards passage."

"I thought this merger made sense in 2012, and I believe it makes even more sense today," Fritchey said. "Eight of the 10 largest counties in the United States agree that having a separately elected clerk and recorder is redundant, inefficient and a waste of taxpayer dollars. By merging the functions of these two offices, we can reduce the size of county government, improve constituent service, reduce political and bureaucratic inefficiency, and save upwards of $1 million every year following implementation."

County Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-9) said that it is important to make government more efficient at a time when money is scare at all levels of government.

"If it can save $1 million, then we should try to streamline those offices," Silvestri said. "I believe the people will support streamlining this government. This referendum is a means of cost cutting."

Silvestri had faced a backlash from the African-American community in May when he planned to introduce a resolution that would urge the Illinois General Assembly to allow a judge to appoint the Cook County Circuit Court clerk, a position held by Dorothy Brown, who is black, with the approval of the county board instead of by voters.

After criticism at a county board meeting, Silvestri withdrew the resolution, saying that it was designed to make government more efficient and that it should not be taken out of context and be racially divisive.

"Unfortunately in my case, we never got to the merits of the proposal, and there were not enough votes for it anyway," Silvestri said. He said that the idea to implement the changes in 2020 if the referendum is approved was done to give Yarbrough the opportunity to serve another term if she is re-elected.

County Commissioner Luis Arroyo Jr. (D-8) said that it was ridiculous to think of the ordinance as a racial issue. "It’s about consolidating and streamlining government," he said. "We are beginning the budget process, and we already know that there will be a $170 million shortfall, and we need to get serious about consolidating services. This would be just the first step of a series of giant steps that the county will need to take."

Arroyo said that the merger probably would absorb lower level employees but that upper management would be eliminated. "However, it is sad that some people want to make this about racial politics," he said. "Elected offices are not dependant on if you are white, African American or Latino or other race. Voters decide."