Four Democratic candidates vying to become the next chief recordkeeper of Cook County’s vast court system traded barbs – and a few laughs – during a debate Friday.
With just a few weeks to go before the March 17 primary, each tried to position themselves as the best person to oversee one of the largest circuit court systems in the nation. The job: Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, who oversees a $124 million budget and nearly 1,500 employees and the files for a trove of cases.
Current Clerk Dorothy Brown is not running for re-election after 20 years in office.
The Civic Federation, a Chicago nonprofit fiscal hawk that keeps an eye on local government finances, hosted the forum at the Union League Club of Chicago downtown. The Democratic candidates are Richard Boykin, a former Cook County commissioner; Illinois state Sen. Iris Martinez; attorney Jacob Meister; and Michael Cabonargi, a commissioner on the county Board of Review, which reviews property tax appeals. Republican Barbara Bellar, who is unopposed in the primary, did not attend.
Here are five takeaways from the event.
1. A (potential) win for transparency
Unlike other government agencies, people can’t file public records requests with Illinois’ county court systems, even though they can comb through records in person at a courthouse. The lack of public access is a constant headache for lawyers, their clients, journalists and academics who study criminal justice.
Martinez said she’s filed legislation to make the Clerk’s office subject to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act and also would immediately audit the office if she’s elected in November.
“FOIA is a way to open … this office up,” Martinez said. “It’s been pretty obscure all these years.”
Boykin questioned why Martinez is just now trying to change the law to make the Clerk’s office more transparent. She’s been an Illinois state senator for 17 years.
Martinez said she started digging into transparency issues at the Clerk’s office after people complained to her that they could not get certain records, like orders of protection. Lawyers and law enforcement agencies needed more information, too, she said.
“Better late than never, right Commissioner?” she said to Boykin.
Cabonargi said if he won, he would appoint an officer to oversee certain public records requests, such as budgets and staffing levels. But he said Chief Judge Timothy Evans, who oversees the county courts, might still need to approve releasing other records related to cases.
2. These penalties could disappear
The candidates agreed that the Clerk’s office should no longer have private debt collection agencies go after people who don’t pay fines and fees.
In recent years, WBEZ has reported how such court bills have faced criticism because they can make it hard for low-income defendants to get back on their financial feet and move on with their lives after their cases are over.
Boykin said he would take it a step further.
“The court system has basically become a money-making machine on people of color and poor people,” Boykin said. “That’s not right. We will move away from that system once I’m clerk of the Circuit Court. And on day one, we’ll move back in terms of forgiving those debts from the fees, and we’ll urge judges to waive those fines.”
3. Rooting out patronage
The candidates also took turns denouncing patronage at the clerk’s office. The office is under a court order to nix a pattern of hiring employees based on their politics.
Meister said this is one of his primary issues. That led to this colorful exchange about the Cook County Democratic Party slating process last August.
“I’m personally disgusted,” Meister said. “During that process, I had many committeemen who came over to me and said, ‘I’ll support you, but I need two jobs and four promotions.’ ”
As Meister continued, Cabonargi chimed in: “Who are these people? What are their names? Who are they?”
Meister didn’t say. He also wouldn’t name names when a WBEZ reporter asked him after Friday’s forum.
Cabonargi won the Party’s endorsement last year. Getting Party bosses’ collective endorsement is coveted because it typically comes with an infusion of money and a small army to help get out the vote.
4. Should the Clerk be elected or appointed?
Candidates were split. Meister said judges should appoint the clerk for a certain term. Martinez said she would be open to exploring if the post should be appointed.
Cabonargi said the job should remain an elected position. “I believe in more democracy, not less.”
“The office ought to be accountable to the people,” he said.
To illustrate why, Boykin pointed to Operation Greylord, a bribery scheme in Chicago in the 1980s involving dozens of judges, lawyers, police officers, court officials and others.
5. Two candidates duke it out
Meister once again called out Cabonargi for exceeding campaign contribution limits from people who appear before the county’s Board of Review, where Cabonargi is a commissioner. Cabonargi said fundraising laws changed a few times, and that he refunded the excess contributions.
“He’s engaging in these things because he desperately wants to run – again – a failed campaign against Dorothy Brown,” Cabonargi said of Meister. “I’m not Dorothy Brown.”
Meister fought back. He alleged that Cabonargi continues to violate campaign contribution limits.
Boykin tried to lighten the mood, drawing laughs from the crowd: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.