DuPage unveils plan to merge election commission, clerk's office

DuPage County officials will ask state lawmakers to return election oversight power to the county clerk's office by merging it with the DuPage Election Commission.

The proposed consolidation would combine the functions of both offices while maintaining bipartisan oversight of elections in DuPage, officials said Tuesday.

"Merging the functions of two county offices that experience a high volume of public inquiries and interactions ... allows for a smoother customer experience, eliminates redundancy and increases efficiency," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said.

Election commission officials have adopted a list of cost-saving measures since Cronin launched the DuPage Accountability, Consolidation and Transparency Initiative in May 2012. The initiative called on the commission and 23 other agencies to make structural and operational reforms.

The commission, for example, shifted its website to the county's system and reduced the total number of polling places countywide.

Those and other changes saved taxpayers roughly $3 million over the past four years, officials estimate.

But Cronin earlier this year said he wanted to find additional savings while providing county voters "the highest level of service."

So Cronin worked with county Clerk Paul Hinds and Cathy Ficker Terrill, chairwoman of the election commission board, to examine whether the county clerk, who is elected countywide, should run the day-to-day operations of the election commission.

The plan calls for the election commission to become a division of the clerk's office.

In addition, a five-member Board of Election Commissioners would be created to set policy, hold meetings and receive public comment. The county clerk would serve as chairman.

"It's a great opportunity to look at a new model for better governance," Ficker Terrill said.

The proposal "upholds the independence of the election process," she said, because it keeps the election commission board. At the same time, functions can be consolidated and costs can be reduced.

In order for the idea to become reality, the county needs state lawmakers to approve it. Officials are planning to take the proposal to the state in the spring with the goal of having the legislation take effect by September 2017.

The move comes more than four decades after election oversight was stripped from the clerk's office to create the election commission. Another state law is needed now because officials want to keep the bipartisan oversight of elections.

The 1973 state law that formed the election commission required both political parties be represented on the three-person election commission board. Republicans hold two of the three seats.

Hinds said he doesn't want DuPage to go back to a system where the county clerk is the sole election authority.

"The public has to have confidence in the election process," Hinds said. "If there's any challenges (of candidate petitions), it's not just the county clerk making the decision, it's going to be the (election) board - and it's a bipartisan board."

Cronin said the election oversight provided by the panel is "a hallmark."

"Why would we abolish that?" Cronin said. "Let's preserve that and let's marry it with a more efficient, more professional administrative function in the clerk's office."

The clerk's office - which sends out property tax bills and handles documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates - has 18 employees. The election commission has 24.

Cronin said he anticipates there will be a head count reduction.

"It will happen over a period of time through attrition," he said. "I can't give you a specific number, but a lot of it will depend on how Paul Hinds determines the manner in which he wants to run his office."

The merged office could save the money on legal expenses. Right now, the election commission hires outside lawyers, but the clerk's office is represented by the state's attorney's office.

Hinds said he expects the state's attorney's office to continue to represent the clerk's office after the merger.

A public hearing on the proposal will be held after the Jan. 10 county board meeting.

Dan Cronin
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