Most Cook County court clerk candidates want to clean house because of corruption

  • The Cook County circuit court clerk candidates are, from left, Richard Boykin, Jacob Meister, Iris Martinez and Michael Cabonargi. They spoke to the Daily Herald in a group candidate interview Friday.

      The Cook County circuit court clerk candidates are, from left, Richard Boykin, Jacob Meister, Iris Martinez and Michael Cabonargi. They spoke to the Daily Herald in a group candidate interview Friday. Russell Lissau | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/27/2020 3:42 PM

Concerned about political corruption, three of the four Democratic candidates for Cook County circuit court clerk want to clean house and fire administrators if elected.

The fourth Democrat in the race disagreed with mass firings and vowed to take a gentler approach.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Democratic incumbent Dorothy Brown isn't seeking reelection.

The Democratic hopefuls are former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin of Oak Park; Cook County Board of Review Chairman Michael Cabonargi of Wilmette; state Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago; and attorney Jacob Meister of Chicago.

The winner will face Republican Barbara Bellar, a physician from Burr Ridge who has unsuccessfully sought other political offices.

The Democratic candidates spoke about the state of the clerk's office Friday in a joint endorsement session at the Daily Herald's offices in Arlington Heights.

The clerk is the official keeper of records for all judicial matters in Cook County. The office has an annual operating budget of more than $100 million and more than 1,400 employees, according to its website.

Brown first was elected in 2000. Her office has been under federal investigation for corruption, culminating with an employee's perjury conviction last year. Brown has never been charged.

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Martinez said the court clerk's office has been mismanaged and employees are poorly trained. She railed against the office's long-alleged pattern of hiring political supporters and called the election an opportunity to change its culture.

Her solution was radical.

"I would replace everyone," Martinez said. She later clarified that remark by saying she'd fire all nonunionized administrators in the office.

Any dismissed employees could apply to be rehired, she said.

Cabonargi agreed with Martinez's criticisms and approach to fixing the problems.

In a follow-up email to the Daily Herald, Cabonargi said he'd bring in a nonprofit Chicago group called the Civic Consulting Alliance to do "a top-down forensic investigation" of the office's staff and its procedures to determine the path forward.

"If they're found to have enabled corruption or are unqualified for the work of the role ... then they will be fired," Cabonargi said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He also said any firings would honor union contracts and adhere to the Shakman decrees, a series of federal court orders issued in the 1970s and 1980s designed to abolish political patronage in Chicago.

Meister agreed that personnel changes are needed.

"Some of these jobs have been sold," he said.

Meister said he suspects some positions in the office are filled by fraudulent employees who don't show up for work but still get paychecks. He suggested filling any resulting open supervisory positions by promoting talented employees already working for the clerk's office.

Boykin said he'd take a different approach.

"You can't go in and fire everybody in leadership positions," he said, noting that employees are protected by a labor union and have rights.

Boykin said firing everyone would put the office in a bad position.

"If you let all staff go -- or even just the managerial employees -- the operations of the office would grind to a complete halt," he said in a subsequent email.

Boykin said he'd talk to department leaders about his plans for improving the office. Anyone who disagrees can look for work elsewhere, he said.

Within hours of the endorsement session, Boykin posted a thread on Twitter in which he said his three opponents told the Daily Herald they intended to "fire all court staff on Day 1."

Meister and Martinez responded on Twitter and called Boykin's statements untrue. Cabonargi didn't respond to Boykin's tweets.

Acknowledging that his opponents clarified their answers during the endorsement interview, Boykin accused them of trying to "walk back their responses."

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