CHICAGO — Cook County officials have made several recent attempts to reduce the number of elected positions, saying they want to save money and make the local government more effective. They’ve had mixed results.
Public dissent defeated an attempt by Cook County Commissioner Peter Silvestri in May to take steps to convert an elected position into an appointed one. Supporters of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown rallied around her to object to a resolution that would have allowed the county to formally ask the state to allow the circuit court’s chief judge to appoint a circuit clerk, with approval by the Cook County Board. If it had passed, the resolution would have had to win approval from the General Assembly and the governor.
A month later, the board approved putting a referendum on the November ballot, offering voters the choice to get rid of the office of Recorder of Deeds and give its responsibilities to the Cook County Clerk’s office.
It's not exactly a new idea to reduce the number of elected members of government, said Nick Kachiroubas, a professor at DePaul University’s School of Public Service.
Cook County has some precedent for this kind of change. While county coroners are elected in many counties, the medical examiner in Cook County is appointed.
The recent moves could help bring more attention to more important elections, said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"We have seven different elected officials in Cook County," Simpson said. "We shouldn’t have as many. We ought to limit the number of elected positions so there can be more focus on electing those officials who are really important to the political process."
In May, Silvestri withdrew his resolution after some of Brown’s supporters accused him of having racist motivations. Brown is African-American.
While it’s true that too few elected leaders are African American, that may be a misleading argument, Simpson said.
“I don’t think you can argue in principle that this is something the public ought to have a vote on,” Simpson said. “It isn’t passing laws, it isn’t raising taxes, it isn’t creating a budget for government, so the things that something like the city council or county board do aren’t part of what the clerk of the circuit court does.”
Both Simpson and Kachiroubas said they expect the issue could resurface after this year's election. They also said Brown’s performance in the job may be part of the push to change the way the office is filled. Despite controversy surrounding Brown, who lost the Democratic endorsement ahead of the three-way primary race in March, she still won about 47 percent of the vote in March, making her the choice of the Democratic Party for the November ballot.
Her supporters say making the circuit clerk an elected position violates voter rights, and that's a fair point, Kachiroubas said. The state has always erred on the side of giving voters the right to pick who fills these positions.
It leads to a broader political question: Could a partisan election - or any election - prevent the most qualified person from getting the job?
“Does it really matter if your coroner or sheriff is a Republican or Democrat?”
said. “Given the nature of law enforcement, I think having some sort of electoral check and balance in offices like the county sheriff and the state’s attorney makes a lot of sense.”
But the need may not be as great for administrative positions, such as the clerk of the circuit court, he added.
“How does a board draw that line and say this office should have someone elected and this office shouldn’t? I think that’s the bigger political debate,” he said. “Again, the question becomes, does the electoral process provide the best candidate for this process? That’s something policymakers have to really grapple with.”