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County clerk’s office needs federal oversight
Also, Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough should resign her Democratic party positions because she will run suburban elections.
Monday, September 16, 2019 Chicago Sun-Times by EDITORIAL BOARD
We can’t get a federal monitor soon enough to ensure that the Cook County clerk’s office doesn’t sink into a pit of patronage.
Unfortunately, since Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough took office in December to run the newly merging offices of clerk and recorder of deeds, we’re afraid we might be seeing all the hallmarks of a burgeoning patronage operation.
The county simply can’t afford to backslide in that direction. Only a federal monitor can ensure that consent decrees signed in 1972 and 1991 to prohibit patronage abuse are respected.
Not only does Yarbrough’s office need a federal monitor, but Yarbrough also should resign her position as vice chair of the state Democratic state party and her position in the Cook County Democratic organization. No one should hold a top political office while running suburban elections, which is part of the Cook County clerk’s job. Because she holds that position, Yarbrough should avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and she is failing that test.
What the Cook County clerk does
Keeps official record keeper for births, marriages, civil unions and deaths that occur in Chicago and suburban Cook County.
Acts as the chief election authority for more than 120 towns and villages in suburban Cook County.
Maintains delinquent tax records, tax maps and information regarding TIF districts.
Accepts and records documents detailing the financial activities of public officials, candidates, certain government officials and lobbyists.
Records the activity of the Cook County Board by preparing board agendas and post-meeting reports as well as maintaining County Board records.
According to a court filing by government watchdog Michael L. Shakman, Yarbrough unlawfully rotated six supervisors in the clerk’s Bureau of Vital Records among offices in Bridgeview, Markham, Maywood, Rolling Meadows and Skokie. She also is putting patronage workers in positions not authorized by the court in 1991, and she allowed the soliciting of political donations from rank-and-file workers through text messages to private cell phones the clerk obtained from employment records, the filing stated. In addition, her newly installed deputy clerk has disciplined workers without political ties for violating personnel policies that no one has written down, the court filing said.
To us, requiring supervisors to rotate from one suburban office, adding perhaps hours to their commutes, looks like a transparent effort to get them to quit so their jobs can be handed over to political insiders. Why else would two supervisors with political connections not be required to take part in the transfers?
And why, as the court filing says, did Yarbrough install former state Rep. Cynthia Soto into a top procurement position that should have been free of political influence? Why was Tim Curry, who served as Maywood’s police chief when Yarbrough’s husband was mayor there, hired as deputy clerk of security, a position Shakman said is supposed to be free of political hiring?
We’d feel better if Yarbrough — a top ally of House Speaker Michael Madigan when she was a state representative — had an exemplary record of scrupulously avoiding the questionable use of public office. But she doesn’t.
Just after taking over as recorder of deeds in 2012, Yarbrough hired her niece to a $114,000-a-year job as legal counsel. Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard said the appointment violated the Cook County ethics ordinance against hiring family members. Blanchard also said Yarbrough broke the rules by hiring U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’ nephew. But Yarbrough blithely said the ordinance didn’t apply to her office. It’s the same unfounded excuse former Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios used for hiring his relatives.
After becoming recorder of deeds, Yarbrough also hired several other people with political ties to her and her husband.
In 2017, Yarbrough and 10 top staffers had a weekend retreat at the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, that cost taxpayers $12,303.09.
In 2005, while still a state representative, Yarbrough wrote the Illinois Department of Public Aid in support of a proposed senior care complex in Maywood even as the company she owned at the time, Hathaway Insurance Agency, was hired by the senior care center’s developer, according to an investigation by the Better Government Association and FOX Chicago.
Unfortunately, Cook County has a sorry history of patronage abuse, which has cost taxpayers untold sums of money and provided them with often-shoddy services. Fortunately, in recent years, the City of Chicago, the Cook County sheriff, Cook County government and the Cook County Forest Preserve District have cleaned up their acts and emerged from under federal surveillance. Moreover, during former Cook County Clerk David Orr’s 28 years as county clerk, the courts saw no reason to oversee hiring.
We wish we were confident Yarbrough had that same commitment. But there are troubling signs she is like many politicians who give lip service to patronage reform but won’t implement it unless someone is looking over their shoulders.
The next court hearing is Oct. 31. We hope we don’t have to wait much longer than that for a federal monitor to be on the case.