On Nov. 4, voters throughout Cook County will decide whether or not the Cook County Recorder of Deeds should be folded into the Cook County Clerk’s Office. The referendum question was approved by a 10 to 5 vote by the Cook County Board of Commissioners at their June 29 regular meeting. Two commissioners were absent.
According to Commissioner John Fritchey (12th), who introduced the ballot measure, this is the first time that the county has attempted to do away with a governmental body since 1972, when the county coroner, an elected office, was replaced by the medical examiner’s, who is appointed.
If voters approve the referendum question, which is binding, the recorder’s office will be consolidated into the clerk’s office by 2020.
Cook County Board President Toni 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 county clerk’s office — which has a budget of $35 million and is currently led by Clerk David Orr — handles birth and death certificates, facilitates suburban elections and calculates property tax rates, among other functions.
The recorder’s office handles property ownership records and real estate transfers, among other documentation. Former state representative Karen Yarbrough is the present recorder of deed and oversees a budget of $13 million.
During remarks delivered at the June 29 meeting and in numerous interviews after the vote, Yarbrough disputed the claims of the referendum’s supporters, saying that the commissioners voted without actually studying the costs of consolidating the offices. She also said that, in the last two years, more than $2 million has been cut from her office.
“Of the consolidated offices in the 10 largest counties, none has a property fraud unit or a veteran services office,” Yarbrough said. “It’s a shame that the county board wants us to be more like these offices, rather than the best.”
Besides accounting and logistical disputes, the county board’s vote also aroused age-old racial animosities.
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 note that his constituents believe that 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 Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest 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.
Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski (16th), who represents North Riverside, Brookfield south of Southview Avenue and north of 31st Street and the southern tip of Riverside, was absent for the vote on the referendum question. He previously opposed merging the two offices back in 2012.
Commissioner Sean Morrison (17th), who represents all but the southern tip of Riverside and central Brookfield, voted for the merger.
Boykin’s comments prompted Fritchey 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 said. “This is about reforming government.”
According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, most of the county board’s commissioners and even some of Yarbrough’s subordinates, such as Deputy Recorder Cedric Giles, who ardently defends Yarbrough, believe the ballot measure will pass.