DuPage voters to consider proposal to merge county offices

For decades, DuPage has operated differently than other counties across the state by having a commission - not the county clerk's office - oversee elections.

Now officials say merging the DuPage Election Commission with the clerk's office could increase efficiency and reduce costs. On March 20, they will ask voters if the election commission should be dissolved and its responsibilities given to the clerk's office.

"This is a good government issue," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said Monday. "I hope and expect that the voters understand what's at stake here. We want to do more with less. We want to see where we can share services and streamline and consolidate functions."

Election oversight power was stripped from the clerk's office in the early 1970s to create the election commission. The law that formed the commission required both political parties be represented on a three-person election panel. Republicans currently hold two of the three seats.

Last year, legislation was proposed that would have merged the county clerk's office with the commission and created a new panel to provide bipartisan oversight of elections. But state lawmakers failed to act on that proposal.

"So let's move it (election responsibilities) to the county clerk," Cronin said. "Democrats and Republicans alike agree that this is the way to go."

If DuPage voters support the nonbinding ballot question to dissolve the commission, county officials will take the election results to state lawmakers and urge them to act.

"We've already communicated to legislators what the game plan is," Cronin said. "So we're ready to go."

A state law change is the easiest way to undo the election commission because it was formed by a state law. While it could be disbanded through a binding referendum, DuPage doesn't have the authority to do so because it doesn't have home rule power.

If voters reject the nonbinding question, county officials might try to improve the existing model without restructuring it.

Still, Cronin says the proposed merger is "a good, solid plan."

"I think this is a better model," he said. "It's more efficient and has the capability to adapt to the changes that are certain to come."

The clerk's office sends out property tax bills and handles other documents such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates. It's run by Paul Hinds, a Republican, and has 18 employees.

The election commission is run by Executive Director Joseph H. Sobecki and has 20 employees. It also pays the salaries of the three election commissioners who each receive $27,500 a year.

County officials estimate that consolidating the election commission and clerk's office could save taxpayers at least $300,000 a year by combining staffs and finding efficiencies.

For example, the merged office could save money on legal expenses.

This year, the election commission budgeted about $130,000 to hire outside lawyers. But the clerk's office is represented by the state's attorney's office.

On Monday, Hinds said the state's attorney's office would continue to represent the clerk's office if there's a merger. "I wouldn't hire a separate legal counsel," he said.

Hinds said his office would be prepared if its election oversight power was restored.

"If the voters want it to come back to the clerk's office, I'm more than happy to do it," Hinds said. "I certainly think we can handle the job."

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