One office better than two
There's nothing wrong with Champaign County Board members giving people a chance to vote for smarter government.
As board members debate whether to ask voters if they wish to fold the recorder's office into the county clerk's office, they should ask themselves one question — if they were re-creating county government from scratch, would any of them propose a separate elective office for this mostly invisible, administrative post?
The obvious answer is, "Absolutely not." Indeed, the idea would be laughable.
The problem, however, is that the board is not starting from scratch. The recorder of deeds' office dates back at least to 1833, according to office records, and inertia is hard to overcome.
This public office is hardly the only elected anachronism. They abound in county government, products of an agriculturally dominated era more than a century old. Champaign County has 30 township governments. Voters throughout Illinois' 102 counties still elect sheriffs, treasurers, county clerks — all administrative or professional posts for which no minimum credentials are required.
Why? Because it's always been done that way and making a change would stir up ossified constituencies who benefit from, and will fight to protect, the status quo.
Unfortunately, times are hard. Money is tight. Fidelity to the taxpayers and common sense require re-thinking the status quo and embracing the future, not clinging to the past.
So, following in the footsteps of a successful combination of the recorder and county clerk's office in McLean County, board members are considering whether to ask voters in November if there should be a similar consolidation here.
The savings, they estimate, would be minimal — $40,000 to $50,000 a year. The number represents the difference between what the current recorder is paid ($86,328 for the current fiscal year) and the salary of a lower-level clerk whom county administrator Deb Busey suggests would be needed to replace the recorder.
Busey is correct that the estimated savings is not eye-popping. But that's only part of the issue.
From a purely organizational standpoint, the move makes sense.
Most people not in the legal or real estate businesses have never heard of the recorder's office, which is responsible for maintaining land-related records as well as obscure papers like foreign birth certificates, foreign marriage licenses and military discharge papers. They mostly don't know the candidates who run for this elected office.
Indeed, the only real purpose of its independent existence is to provide an office for aspiring politicos to seek.
Current recorder Barb Frasca, now in her fourth term, defends the recorder's office as it stands, and it's easy to see why. She takes justifiable pride in the way she runs the recorder's office and is pleased to report that it generates sufficient fees to more than pay for itself. If it's not broke, she asks, why fix it?
But Frasca's performance is not at issue. It's the recorder's office that's broken, at least in the sense that its separate existence as an elective office makes no administrative or financial sense.
Administrator Busey has chosen a politically opportune time to raise the consolidating issue. Frasca does not intend to seek re-election, and, given that the proposed consolidation, if approved by voters, would not occur for two years, it's hard to imagine any local Democrats or Republicans have yet set their heart on running. So any political conflict generated by putting the issue to a public vote would be minimal.
In that context, it's important for county board members to put this issue to the voters. On its merits, the issue is a no-brainer. But politics and merit do not often go hand in hand, a reality that will complicate the board's decision.