Chicago Tribune Editorial: Finally, Cook County Board empowers voters to (slightly) downsize government

By: Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

If you’re a Cook County voter considering staying home on Election Day, County Board members on Wednesday gave you a good reason to show up.

By a vote of 10-5 with two members absent, commissioners approved putting a referendum question on the Nov. 8 ballot to abolish the office of recorder of deeds and merge its duties into the clerk’s office. Voters will get to decide whether to keep a countywide elected office or eliminate it by the end of 2020 — a rare opportunity for Cook County taxpayers to downsize this costly government.

And we mean rare. The last chance voters had to eliminate an elected countywide position was in 1972.

We hope voters will agree that these two offices should merge — to save $800,000 annually, to make government more consumer-friendly, to combine offices with similar record-keeping duties.

Opponents of the merger — we can already hear screams from public employee unions that always resist cost-saving consolidation — will make their case between now and November that the recorder’s office is worth saving. Expect race to play a role, as it did at Wednesday’s meeting. The current recorder, Karen Yarbrough, is African-American.

Commissioner Richard Boykin, D-Oak Park, said his constituents believe the effort of Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, to combine the offices is “an all-out attack on black elected officials.”

“Wow, am I disappointed that comment got made,” Fritchey responded. “This is about reforming government. I happen to believe no elected seat belongs to any racial category.”

Defenders of keeping the office largely argued in favor of Yarbrough’s program expansions to fight fraud in the home-buying, lending and selling space, and to help veterans. Yarbrough said blending the two offices would be “risky” and she questioned any real cost savings. The offices, she said implausibly, do not perform similar duties so there are no redundancies that would be eliminated. “This is a drastic and risky move to save pennies,” she told the board.

This merger, however, isn’t about Yarbrough, even though some are attempting to make it so. Several commissioners who voted to eliminate the office praised Yarbrough and her tenure since 2012.

This referendum instead is about giving Cook County voters the chance to make the call — to keep the office or scrap it. The referendum will be binding.

Wednesday’s vote came during a meeting of the board’s finance committee — a committee of the whole — with formal ratification later in the day. Voting in favor of putting the referendum on the ballot were: Fritchey; Luis Arroyo Jr., D-Chicago; John Daley, D-Chicago; Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago; Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, D-Chicago; Gregg Goslin, R-Glenview; Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park; Tim Schneider, R-Bartlett; Peter Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park; and Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston.

Voting against were: Boykin; Jerry “Iceman” Butler, D-Chicago; Stanley Moore, D-Chicago; Deborah Sims, D-Chicago; and Robert Steele, D-Chicago.

Commissioners Jeffrey Tobolski, D-McCook, and Joan Murphy, D-Crestwood, were absent. When the issue last arose, in 2012, Tobolski and Murphy opposed a merger. It never reached the ballot.

But this is the year. The Cook County Board is empowering taxpayers to downsize one of their many governments.

All those taxpayers have to do is … vote for the merger.

See the full story at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-cook-county-recorder-clerk-merge-preckwinkle-edit-0630-jm-20160629-story.html