Cook County Recorder, Clerk Merger Is Smart Streamlining We Need

Illinois has more units of government than any other state. Here's one instance where you can do something about it.

Those of us who promote good government for a living are having a hard time maintaining an upbeat attitude these days.

On Thursday night Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel laid out an ambitious plan to attack the city’s epidemic of violence—he certainly talked the talk—but walking the walk is much more complicated, expensive and daunting.

More well trained cops and new programs to replace hopelessness with hope will cost a couple hundred million dollars.

On top of the hundreds of millions in higher water, sewer and real estate taxes the City Council already laid on property owners to stabilize underfunded pension plans.

Did I miss the plan to run city government more efficiently?

I have the same question for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who’s reportedly eyeing a new tax or two to cover a big budget shortfall.

On top of last year’s hike in the county sales tax, which is now the highest in the country, and an increase in the hotel-motel tax that hits tourists and business travelers.

How about tightening the county’s belt first?

There’s also disturbing news on the election reform front, where the Illinois Supreme Court killed a promising legislative redistricting plan designed to end gerrymandering, the governor vetoed an automatic registration bill that would have empowered thousands of new voters, and a lawsuit is challenging voter registration on Election Day.

What do these people have against increased participation in elections, the bedrock of our democracy?

While I wait for answers to my questions, I’ll treat you to a nugget of good news that gives me hope, and it’s in the aforementioned Cook County, where a wisp of good government reform is in the air.

One of the smallest county offices, Recorder of Deeds, spends $13 million a year doing little more than recording land transactions and real estate transfers.

“It needs to do more than that,” Recorder Karen Yarborough admits, but it doesn’t, which is why John Fritchey, a Chicago commissioner, led a campaign to fold the Recorder’s office into the larger office of Cook County Clerk, which manages another group of records, calculates tax rates and runs suburban elections.

It’s a perfect fit that makes perfect sense, so the county board voted in June to put the consolidation question on the November ballot.

It could save up to $1 million a year, and it represents the kind of “smart streamlining” Illinois desperately needs more of and the Better Government Association enthusiastically supports.

Why?  Because Illinois has more units of local government than any other state, they’re all separate taxing bodies, and it’s time to combine, consolidate, merge and eliminate the duplicative and unnecessary ones.

Cook County is taking an important step.

The issue, predictably, got politicized on racial grounds because Recorder Yarborough is black and Clerk David Orr is white.

One African American commissioner calls it an “all out attack on black elected officials” but Fritchey says it’s about reforming government:  “I happen to believe no elected seat belongs to any racial category.”

Fritchey’s view prevailed, and that’s progress.  Now it’s up to the voters to decide whether we need a Recorder’s office or it should be rolled into the Clerk’s office in 2020.

Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ll wait until the votes are counted in November before I put the migraine pills back in the medicine cabinet and celebrate a small but significant victory for good government in an otherwise troubling season.