Daily Herald opinion: Election, budget accountability problems stem from DuPage clerk, not the office

DuPage County Board members' issues with clerk are a larger, but largely separate, problem

This editorial is a consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board.

DuPage County Board members find themselves embroiled in an unfortunate procedural tug of war over budget issues with an obstinate county clerk, but talk of resurrecting the Du­Page County Election Commission is not the answer.

The suggestion came as members of the board are tussling with County Clerk Jean Kaczmarek over how she spends her budget and whether she's paying bills on time.

Criticism over Kaczmarek's administration in general is valid. Last month, the clerk's office had 11 unpaid bills totaling $180,520, and Kaczmarek - unlike every other elected official and department head in DuPage County government - refused to comply with the board's accounting procedures.

Compounding the issue is the fact that until this week, Kaczmarek, a Glen Ellyn Democrat, had not attended a county meeting in months. At the finance committee meeting Tuesday morning, she read from a prepared statement indicating she wouldn't discuss budget policy in public and then left, to the consternation of county leaders from both parties.

Kaczmarek's astounding lack of accountability is one of the reasons we endorsed her Republican challenger, former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti of Wheaton, in the 2022 election. But whether the clerk's office should cease to oversee elections is a separate debate - and one that can't be based solely on Kaczmarek's disappointing record.

The separate election commission was created in the early 1970s, stripping power from the clerk's office. In the late 2010s, the county saw serious election night problems in three successive elections, culminating in a blunder that delayed results for hours during the 2018 primary. Although Kaczmarek supported giving oversight back to the clerk's office - and made it her campaign platform in 2018, when she unseated Republican Paul Hinds - it was then-County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican, who pushed the merger through in 2019 with an assist from current Chairman Deb Conroy, an Elmhurst Democrat who was a state legislator at the time.

The goals were to save money, streamline government and bolster confidence in the system. The results have been decidedly mixed. Even so, the board has not interfered with Kaczmarek's operation. It has merely sought to get her to cooperate with procedures intended to give taxpayers confidence that their interests are being taken seriously.

The election division in Kaczmarek's office has a budgeted head count of 24 full-time employees, with $4.14 million allocated for it in the 2023 fiscal year. But according to county board members, a majority of the 11 bills that went unpaid last month dealt with election-related expenses.

County clerks across the state have demonstrated they are capable of administering elections. Du­Page's problem likely isn't with the clerk's office, but with the office holder. Kaczmarek has 3½ years left on her term, which is troubling given that 2024 is a presidential election year. The county board and its chairman, mostly Democrats themselves, are right to be looking for solutions to the Democratic clerk's intransigence. However, history has shown a separate election commission can't guarantee better performance.

If Kaczmarek fails to right the ship, voters should give someone else a chance in 2026.

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