Updated Wednesday at 7:23 a.m.
The four Democrats running for Cook County circuit court clerk all vowed on Tuesday evening to curb punitive fines and improve accountability and public access in an office long plagued by allegations of patronage, corruption and inefficiency — an office where carbon copies remain a central tool of record keeping.
In their first face-to-face encounter ahead of the March primary, the candidates also tried to distinguish their priorities and experience, vying to replace Dorothy Brown, who announced last August she would step down from the post after her current term, which ends in December.
Michael Cabonargi of Wilmette, a Cook County Board of Review commissioner, stressed many times the need for digitizing the clerk’s mountains of hard-copy records.
“We have warehouses throughout the county filled with data that can help working families and that can help people in Cook County but it’s on paper,” said Cabonargi, who received the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race.
Illinois State Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago said she would hire interpreters and others with skills to increase the office’s non-English language services.
“There is an opportunity to make changes in that office based on the fact that we have people who speak more than one language,” Martinez said. “That’s going to be one of my priorities there.”
Attorney Jacob Meister of Chicago, who challenged Brown in a three-way race in 2016, promised to broaden the office’s application of the state’s open-records law, saying it would help researchers and academics obtain data for criminal studies and measure trends in litigation and the economy.
“Those are things that the clerk’s office has not been cooperative with,” Meister said.
Former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin of Oak Park, who lost his county board seat in 2018 to an ally of President Toni Preckwinkle after he led the charge against her 2017 soda tax, promised to erase the debt of poor people who owe the clerk’s office for unpaid fines and fees.
“I’m the only candidate up here who grew up in Englewood,” Boykin said, referring to a low-income neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side, “and I understand what it’s like to struggle.”
“I’ll work with folks on Day 1 to make sure that we wipe the slate clean so that individuals don’t have to worry about paying those fees,” Boykin said.
Brown, the circuit court clerk since 2000, has long faced accusations of mismanagement.
The clerk’s office has also been the subject of a six-year-old investigation of pay-to-play allegations involving jobs and promotions. As part of that probe, two former employees in the office have been convicted and sentenced.
Martinez, Meister and Cabonargi all slammed Brown’s tenure, but Boykin stood up for her.
“I’m tired of folks talking about Clerk Brown,” Boykin said. “I think she has done some good work. We can denigrate her all you want but Clerk Brown is not on the ballot. You’re on the ballot. Talk about your vision. Don’t talk about the past. The past is history.”
The winner of the March 17 primary will face Republican Barbara Bellar of Burr Ridge in November. Bellar, a physician, ran for state Senate in 2012.
Tuesday’s forum, hosted by a law firm in downtown Chicago, was moderated by Maya Dukmasova, a Chicago Reader staff writer. More than 100 people attended.