In a tight vote accompanied by tense testimony, Cook County Commissioners approved what sponsor John Fritchey described as a “historic” and “miraculous” binding ballot referendum that would consolidate the Cook County Recorder of Deeds with the County Clerk’s Office. The question reads, “Shall the Office of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds be eliminated and all duties and responsibilities of the Office of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds be transferred to, and assumed by, the Office of the Cook County Clerk by December 7, 2020.”

The final vote, and the debate, broke along racial lines. 

Finance Committee Roll Call:

No (5) – Richard Boykin, Jerry “Iceman” Butler, Stanley Moore, Deborah Sims, Robert Steele
Yes (10)– Luis Arroyo, John Fritchey, Bridget Gainer, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Gregg Gosselin, Sean Morrison, Tim Schneider, Peter Silvestri, Larry Suffredin, Chairman John Daley
Absent (2) – Joan Patricia Murphy, Jeffrey Tobolski

Comm. Fritchey (D-12) said he was disappointed race was brought up in the first place. He and fellow Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-1) had a tense exchange in which Boykin told him constituents had asked why Fritchey was engaged in an “all-out assault on black office holders.”

“It’s Dorothy Brown last month, it’s Karen Yarbrough this month… if you want to rush something through and just say ‘I’m going to ram it through, forget about the costs, we’ll just deal with that after the voters approve it,’ that’s the wrong approach,” Boykin said. He was referring to an effort from Commissioner Peter Silvestri to make the position of Clerk of the Circuit Court, an office currently held by Dorothy Brown, an appointed instead of elected one. He was met with stiff opposition from Brown’s employees and withdrew his ordinance.

While Boykin said he assured his constituents attacking black female elected officials wasn’t Fritchey’s intent, the racial aspect of the vote re-emerged throughout public testimony and in debate among commissioners.

Marshall Hatch, pastor of the West Side’s New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist, asked what Fritchey’s “real motive” was. He said Yarbrough’s office was independent, saved $2 million over the past two years, and looked out for the needs and the interests of poor and minorities. “What political interests are being served by this action? This is not the time for this… not in this year when we celebrate in Chicago the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration,” Rev. Hatch said, also mentioning Dr. Martin Luther King’s march in Chicago. “What is the real motive? It could not be fiscal, it is not in the public interest, and it certainly sends the wrong message in this time of minority empowerment, particularly African American political empowerment.”

Boykin moved to defer the item until a financial impact statement could be prepared describing how much money the consolidation would net. Fritchey pointed to a Civic Federation estimate from 2012 that said the consolidation would lead to a 5% reduction in costs: a savings of roughly $800,000. Boykin’s motion failed.

“Wow, am I disappointed that that comment got made,” Fritchey said of Boykin’s “all-out assault” comment after a sigh. He reminded commissioners he sat on Congresswoman Robin Kelly’s host committee at a fundraising event the night before, supported Barack Obama’s presidential run, and worked for initiatives in the black community. “I will put my record on work I’ve done in the African American community up against most anybody: white, brown or black. This is about reforming government.”

The current Recorder of Deeds, Karen Yarbrough, came to testify as well. She told commissioners she’d been successful in streamlining the office in her term, and said consolidating her office with the “bloated” Clerk’s office would put black and brown constituents who rely on the Recorder’s services at risk. “Making such a drastic and risky move to save pennies is not a tightrope this county should attempt to walk,” she said. “Especially when a rebounding economy could overwhelm a gutted office with a million recordings a year.”

Recorder Yarbrough lives in West Suburban Maywood, and is the Democratic Committeeman for West Suburban Proviso Township. Boykin’s district consists of the West Side and West Cook suburbs, including Yarbrough’s hometown. Yarbrough was on Boykin’s transition team.

Debate lasted more than an hour, with some that voted against the measure in 2012 switching sides, including Comm. Larry Suffredin and Finance Chairman John Daley. Suffredin said the extended timeline of the transition helped change his vote. If voters approved the measure in November, that the consolidation would play out over four years. “I believe in referendums, and the power of the people to make decisions.”

After the vote, Fritchey and Boykin hugged, and Fritchey shook hands with the African American commissioners who voted against. Two commissioners Aldertrack spoke to did not want to comment further. The measure passed the full County Board later in the day with the same roll call.