Elective county offices — treasurer, sheriff and recorder of deeds — are throwbacks to the past that would be unthinkable if starting from scratch.
Champaign County Board members have rejected proposals in the past to make the eminently sensible move of consolidating the offices of county clerk and recorder.
So it was a bit of a surprise when board member Shana Jo Crews arranged for the proposed referendum on consolidation to be placed on last week's agenda. Perhaps that's why board members decided to defer action — the issue came out of the blue.
But before it was deferred, the proposal generated discussion, most notably the allegation by Republican board member Jon Rector that the motion proposed by Democrat Crews is nothing more than a partisan attack on the county recorder's office overseen by Republican Mark Shelden.
It seems that partisanship always gets in the way of common sense moves, including consolidating county offices or eliminating unnecessary elected township offices.
Under Crews' proposal, the consolidation question would be put to voters in November with implementation delayed until the end of Shelden's term in 2020.
As the 2016 election year approached, a majority of county board members — both Democrats and Republicans — couldn't bear the thought of dismantling an elective office each party hoped to win in November 2016. Politics is almost always Job 1 for some people, no matter the cost to taxpayers.
Shelden, a former county clerk, eked out a victory in that contest. So now some Democrats want to get rid of it, fulfilling a twin goal of dismantling an unnecessary elected recorder and whacking a Republican officeholder in the process.
Not surprising was Shelden's spirited defense of his stewardship in office. He wrote a memo to board members in which he argued that "an independent recorder's office continues to be a benefit to the taxpayers of Champaign County."
"Just last month I presented to the board a program to digitize deed record books at a savings to the county of hundreds of thousands dollars. That program would not be happening without the recorder's position," he wrote.
Shelden also noted that he was "presented with a $14,000 proposal to create an index of subdivisions for one of our software packages." He said he chose to do "that work myself and at a higher quality than if it had been contracted out."
Shelden makes a compelling case that, as a county recorder, he oversees an office that is doing more and better work while saving money in the process.
But the issue isn't Shelden's stewardship. The question is whether the county ought to maintain this dinosaur — an elected recorder of deeds office most people don't even know exists.
The recorder's office has had underperformers in the past, and, if it continues to be elective, it will again.
The issue is whether the county would be better served if the county clerk, as is the case in other counties throughout Illinois, takes over the duties of the recorder. There's no reason that the county clerk couldn't be just as faithful to the taxpayers as Shelden is or just as indifferent to the taxpayers as some other elected county officials have been in the past.
It's a mistake to personalize this issue, but inevitable given the timing.
That's why the county board should have put the issue of merging the two offices to a vote when Shelden's predecessor, Barb Frasca, was retiring from the office and there was no incumbent to throw to the curb.
In addition to citing his ability as a public official, Shelden also argues that his office doesn't cost taxpayers money because it's funded by the fees it charges to lawyers, real estate agents, banks and title companies In fact, it runs a surplus that goes into county coffers.
Those same fees would be in place no matter what the county's organization chart. Theoretically, county costs would be reduced if the two offices were merged and employees were cross-trained and managed by a competent elected officeholder.
At least, that's what this proposal promises. That's why the discussion of the merits of consolidation — not the personalities of consolidation — merits further consideration.