Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough. The Cook County Board of Commissioners has approved a measure that would allow voters to decide on whether or not the county should fold the office into the clerk’s office.
At a June 29 regular meeting, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 10-5 to attempt to do something that, in Illinois, is almost unthinkable — consolidate two government bodies into one, a move that proponents of the merger say will save taxpayers money and enhance services.
The board’s vote allows the referendum question of whether or not the recorder of deeds office should be submerged within the county clerk’s office, currently occupied by David Orr, to be put on the Nov. 8 ballot for voters to decide on the issue.
The mere discussion of consolidating the recorder’s office prompted Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), who voted against the measure — all five negative votes came from African-American board members — to channel the voice of his constituents, who he said believe the measure “is an all-out attack on black elected officials.”
“It’s Dorothy Brown last month,” Boykin said, referencing a failed attempt by Commissioner Peter Silvestri (9th) to make the Circuit Court clerk’s office an appointed post, “and it’s Karen Yarbrough this month, and they happen to be two black women officeholders.”
Boykin, whose district includes Maywood, Bellwood, Broadview, Melrose Park and other western suburbs, was elected with the support of Yarbrough — who, in her role as Proviso Township Democratic Committeeman, endorsed the first-term commissioner in his 2015 bid for the county board seat.
The commissioner’s comments prompted Commissioner John Fritchey (12th), who sponsored the measure, to push-back by touting his legislative record.
“I will put my record on work I’ve done in the African-American community against almost anybody — white, brown or black,” Fritchey was quoted as saying by the Chicago Tribune. “This is about reforming government.”
But even the Tribune had to point out the racial reverberations of Fritchey’s legislation, with the paper noting that an African-American has held the recorder’s office since 1988, when it was filled by Carol Moseley Braun, who was succeeded by Jesse White.
And the recorder’s office isn’t “the only office that has been viewed as belonging to someone of a certain color or race,” the Tribune notes. “The County Board presidency now held by [Preckwinkle] is considered by many Cook County Democrats to be a ‘black seat,’ and the city treasurer’s office viewed much the same way.
“The city clerk’s office has been occupied by Latinos for years, while the county clerk’s office has long been held by whites, including Orr, who applauded the referendum.”
Since 1999, the recorder’s seat has been occupied by a Maywoodian. Eugene Moore held the seat until 2012, when he retired. Yarbrough was elected his successor and is likely to coast to another term.
If voters approve the referendum question, which is binding, the recorder’s office will be consolidated into the clerk’s office by 2020.
Preckwinkle and other county board members who support the consolidation claim that it could translate into enhanced administrative efficiency and cost-savings of at least $800,000 a year. The clerk’s and recorder’s offices are both responsible for maintaining records and administering aspects of the property tax.
The clerk handles birth and death certificates, and the county’s legislative records; calculates property tax rates; facilitates suburban elections. The recorder maintains records of property ownership, real estate transfer taxes and tax liens, according to the Tribune. According to Greg Hinz of Crain’s, the clerk’s office has a $35 million budget while the recorder’s office has a $13 million budget.
Yarbrough’s office disputes the potential cost-savings of the merger that’s touted by its supporters. And the recorder defended her job performance, particularly in the areas of mortgage fraud prevention and office automation.
“My goal was to be the best recorder in the country,” Yarbrough said at the June 29 meeting. “And in the short term, I can boast and say I have.”
Hinz paraphrased Fritchey, who noted that the county’s attempt to eliminate the recorder’s office is the first time that it has attempted to do away with a government body since 1972, when the county coroner, an elected office, was turned into the medical examiner, an appointed office.
The Tribune noted that, “Most commissioners expect voters to approve the measure, something even Deputy Recorder Cedric Giles, an ardent defender of the boss, all but conceded even as he questioned the motives of those who would have the voters make the final call on the issue.”
Cook County, however, isn’t the only one making unprecedented attempts to consolidate governments. According to a July 1 Tribune report, DuPage County is looking to consolidate its clerk’s office and Election Commission. VFP
Correction: A previous version of this post included the wrong date of the Nov. 8, 2016 election. This post has since been updated.
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