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Circuit court clerk's failed cash grab
Cook County official quietly angles for millions to get her house in order

Sunday, June 09, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Patrick McCraney & Patrick Rehkamp

Magicians call it misdirection.

When the audience is distracted looking one way, the "magic" happens. Sometimes, politics is no different.

The focus on pensions, gun permits, gambling and same-sex marriage during the just-finished General Assembly session created the perfect distraction for politicians looking to slip in other bills under the radar.

Enter Dorothy Brown, the clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court.

The Better Government Association found Brown quietly lobbied lawmakers to let her office raise millions in new revenue, pushing four money-generating bills in Springfield. All of them thankfully died as quietly as they were introduced.

Brown's office — which handles court filings such as lawsuits, and is the keeper of millions of court records — is as bad as a bureaucracy gets in Illinois. Visit her main offices in the Daley Center in the Loop, and you'll see workers standing around, more interested in talking to one another than helping long lines of customers.

You'll see computer terminals with blinking black and green screens, so outdated it's a wonder they're even working. And, if you're lucky enough to actually get your hands on the court file you're looking for (many are lost), there's no guarantee it will be complete.

Efficiency is the answer, not more money.

But Brown soldiered on in Springfield. One of her bills called for hiking two court filing fees — for automation and storage — by as much as $10 each, so they'd be $25 apiece.

Right now, filing a civil lawsuit can cost as much as $337, depending on the type of case. Lawyers say Cook County has some of the highest filing fees in the country.

And these high fees don't just affect attorneys. They affect anyone trying to use the courts, whether it's for a simple divorce, a small-claims lawsuit or a probate case after an elderly loved one passes away. Raising fees could deter people from using the courts, and put a greater burden on the poor.

Brown's office says the storage and automation fee hikes would have generated an extra $13 million a year, to be used to rent more warehouse space to hold paper records and to expand automation (i.e. completely overhauling the antiquated computer system that's now being used to manage and look up documents.)

Automation, plus e-filing, would bring electronic access to court records. Right now, nearly all Cook County court filing needs to be done in person. E-filing would let lawyers and others file paperwork over the Internet. Automation and e-filing are crucial steps to modernize the office. Federal courts have been automated for years. Other county court systems are leaps and bounds ahead of Cook, too. While automation is great, Brown should look to trim her 1,800-person staff before she asks to hike fees.

But that would mean cutting back on patronage, the friends and political supporters who make up a large chunk of Brown's workforce.

"We get complaints about lost files (and) poor customer service," said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers, a nonpartisan lawyers group that focuses on improving the court system. "You start wondering about the needs for these kind of (court fee) increases."

Brown's operation is so bad, one high-ranking Cook County court official told the BGA, that Brown's staff has stamped court papers with the wrong years, creating even more headaches.

Despite the fact that automation would bring greater efficiency, Brown says she has no plans to cut the number of employees.

"We (are) hurting tremendously right now," Brown claims, referring to recent budget cuts mandated by Cook County government. "There are not enough efficiencies in the office that we could find."

Brown also brushed aside questions about an Alabama company, On-Line Information Services, hired by her agency to handle an e-filing pilot program that started in 2009.

The company and people affiliated with it have donated more than $16,000 to Brown's campaign fund since 2001, state records show.

One of Brown's top aides, Bridget Dancy, is a village trustee in Matteson, and her campaign fund accepted another $1,500 in donations from people affiliated with the firm.

Brown says the donations had nothing to do with hiring the company.

Let's hope On-Line Information Services and Brown can make e-filing work, although we have our doubts. In the meantime, Brown should find the money to automate her office without raising fees.

Brown's office plans to push these bills to raise fees again, so the next time there's magic in Springfield, we should all be watching.

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