February 21, 2020
The Civic Federation, in partnership with the Union League Club of Chicago, co-hosted a panel featuring candidates for Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County on February 21, 2020. The Civic Federation thanks the four Democratic candidates for their participation in the event:
- Richard Boykin, attorney and former Cook County Commissioner;
- Michael Cabonargi, Cook County Board of Review Commissioner;
- Iris Martinez, Illinois State Senator; and
- Jacob Meister, attorney.
Republican candidate Barbara Bellar will also be on the March 17 Primary ballot, but was unable to attend the forum.
The following is a summary of the issues discussed by the candidate panel.
Data Disclosure and Freedom of Information:
Candidates were asked about how they would improve transparency and whether they think the Clerk of the Circuit Court should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
All four candidates agreed on expanding access to court records and data through FOIA. Commissioner Cabonargi said he would hire a FOIA officer. He pointed out that the Cook County Board of Review is subject to FOIA, which he feels keeps his office accountable. Jacob Meister noted that sensitive information needs to be protected, but that court files are public records, and the FOIA law has been interpreted too restrictively. He said the Court Clerk needs to make court records navigable, transparent and accessible. Senator Martinez supports opening up the Clerk’s Office to FOIA, which would help stakeholders understand whether the Office’s funds are being used responsibly. She noted that she recently introduced Senate Bill 3850 in the 101st Illinois General Assembly, which would make the Circuit Court Clerk of Cook County subject to FOIA. Commissioner Boykin also supports the Court Clerk being subject to FOIA and said the Clerk’s Office should be the most transparent in the U.S.
All four candidates also agreed that they would publish reports from the Court Clerk’s Office showing efficiency information. The candidates agreed on public reports being critical to improving transparency and building public confidence. Senator Martinez indicated reports should provide the public with information about how public dollars are being spent. Mr. Meister stressed the importance of opening up information on the Court Clerk’s accounting and hiring practices.
Fines and Fees:
The candidates highlighted several problems with the current fine and fee structure within the Office of the Circuit Court Clerk. Commissioner Cabonargi pointed to a lack of transparency on fees and fines. He said a significant portion of the Court Clerk’s budget comes from fines and fees that are accounted for through special purpose funds. He suggested evaluating whether some of those fines and fees can be phased out when the function or service they fund is no longer needed (digitizing records, for example). Senator Martinez said more information about the amount collected and how funds are spent would allow for a better assessment of existing fines and fees and whether the current structure is working well. Mr. Meister suggested that the Court Clerk’s Office could operate more efficiently to produce cost savings in order to ease the burden of fees on court users.
On the issue of cash bail, Commissioner Cabonargi said the Cook County Circuit Court retained $4.8 million in bail processing fees last year, which he said is unfair because defendants had not yet been found guilty. Mr. Meister said that downstate counties have said they cannot operate without retaining 10% of bond fees paid by defendants, which he said is unjust.
The candidates also addressed the issue of fines and fees disproportionately impacting communities of color and the poor. Commissioner Boykin committed to forgive the fees accumulated by people who cannot afford them, and suggested that fees and fines be paid on a sliding scale. He said the court system should be funded through the tax base rather than fines and fees, and that people should not be driven to file for bankruptcy or ruin their credit due to debt from court fines. Mr. Meister agreed that the current system is regressive and that debt collection is a symptom of a larger problem—overreliance on fees. He also pointed out that community service credits are an option, but that participants only earn $4 per hour currently. (Senate Bill 3850 would also address this, by increasing the hourly credit to $10 per hour.)
All four candidates agreed that the practice of using debt collectors to collect fines and fees from criminal defendants (with an interest rate of 15% due to the collections agency) should not continue.
Patronage and Building Trust in the Office:
Regarding the issue of patronage, Mr. Meister expressed his frustration with the Cook County Democratic Party slating process and said addressing the issue of political hires in the Court Clerk’s Office would be one of his primary issues upon taking office.
Senator Martinez said the Court Clerk’s Office is in a crisis due to mismanagement. She said she would conduct a complete system audit to review performance, operational expenditures, workforce and training needs in order to identify where problems need to be rectified. She would reassess the at-will staff in the Court Clerk’s Office and ensure that those positions are justified and necessary.
Commissioner Cabonargi said he would commission the Civic Consulting Alliance as an external third party to complete a forensic investigation, with the goal of identifying waste and rewarding talent.
Commissioner Boykin said he would have no tolerance for patronage and would approach the issue by sharing his vision for the Office with the leadership team and investing in staff training, customer service and training on new technology.
Whether the Circuit Court Clerk Should be Elected or Appointed:
Senator Martinez, Commissioner Cabonargi and Commissioner Boykin said they believe the Clerk of the Circuit Court should be elected in order to maintain the independence and accountability of the Office, while Mr. Meister said he thinks the Court Clerk should be an appointed position. Mr. Meister reasoned that an appointed Circuit Court Clerk would greatly reduce machine politics at play in the office and supports the idea of judges appointing a clerk for a term of four to six years.
How to Approach the Relationship with the Chief Judge:
Candidates were asked about the complicated relationship between Cook County’s Circuit Court Clerk and Chief Judge and how they would approach collaboration with the Chief Judge’s Office as a separately elected office. In response, Mr. Meister acknowledged the lack of trust between the two offices and suggested the need for a well-functioning integrated justice information system (in which various electronic systems would more efficiently share information). Senator Martinez said there has been a gap between the County’s public safety offices and that they need to be connected technologically, operating as one system. Commissioner Cabonargi emphasized the need to build public trust by giving the public the information necessary to gauge efficiency of the Court Clerk’s Office. Commissioner Boykin pointed out that the issue goes beyond the County offices because the Illinois Supreme Court sets the rules regarding how the circuit courts operate.