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Dorothy Brown Pitches Money-Making Idea - That Lands With A Thud

Wednesday, October 30, 2019
by Kristin Schorsch

The chief record keeper of Cook County’s court system tried to make her case Wednesday to government leaders that she needs another $8 million next year to hire more workers.

One possible way to pay for it? Calendars.

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown appeared before the County Board during another day of budget hearings to make her pitch. But Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s proposed $6.2 billion budget for 2020 recommends Brown get just one-third of the employees she wants to hire.

If Brown wants more money, commissioners looked to her for suggestions. One of them is selling paper calendars that hang in county courtrooms, which feature Brown’s photo.

“I’m trying to think outside of the box,” Brown, a Democrat, told commissioners. “New ideas.”

Her suggestion landed with a thud.

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Veteran Commissioner John Daley, who runs the finance committee and is leading budget hearings, said he didn’t think the county could sell calendars that it buys with taxpayers dollars. The Chicago Democrat suggested getting a legal opinion because he’s not a lawyer.

“But I am,” Brown jumped in.

“So am I,” quipped Commissioner Bridget Degnen, D-Chicago.

So are a few other commissioners.

Brown’s office had previously been smacked down when it requested $20,000 from the board last month to buy 10,000 calendars with the court clerk’s face printed on them. At the time, the court clerk’s representative said they needed more calendars to put into the county’s more than 300 courtrooms. She said judges use them to schedule cases.

Some commissioners said Brown was just trying to use the calendars as political swag.

The colorful exchange Wednesday between Brown and commissioners came on day three of hearings for Preckwinkle’s proposed 2020 spending plan. A parade of elected and appointed officials who run the county health system, courts, elections and the jail have been defending their pieces of the proposed budget. In some cases, they’ve pushed for more resources.

With a roughly $100 million budget and more than 1,000 employees, Brown oversees one of the largest circuit court systems in the nation. Her offices house millions of documents on cases ranging from murders to traffic tickets.

With a stubborn 20% absentee rate among her staff and an expected deluge of marijuana conviction expungements as Illinois legalizes weed, Brown told commissioners on Wednesday she needs 167 more clerks and other employees. Clerks process the flurry of paperwork for all the people who come before the bench in more than 300 county courtrooms.

Brown also pitched another idea: Charge an extra fee for people who want expedited service, like getting court files the same day they request them, and potentially charge more money if people want documents on a jump drive or a DVD. Brown said records older than four or five years are stored in a warehouse offsite.

“Right now we take your request and it just gets put in line with everything else,” Brown said.

She would not say how much she would charge for expedited service or how much money it would generate. Brown said Timothy Evans, who is chief judge of the county’s court system, must approve her recommendation. A spokesman for Evans said the chief judge would review the proposal.

Brown said if she doesn’t get more clerks, “Then we’re doing what we’re doing now - scrambling.”

Judges and the public are already complaining, she said.

County budget hearings are scheduled to continue through early next week. Commissioners are scheduled to approve the proposed budget next month. The new fiscal plan would begin on Dec. 1.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.

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