Modernization is the crucial component of this year's race for Cook County Circuit Clerk. The Cook County Circuit Court is one of the largest court systems in the world, with more than two million cases filed annually. And it's the Clerk of the Circuit Court who is the official keeper of records for all judicial matters brought into the Circuit Court. Dorothy Brown is the current Clerk, running for her fourth term, facing Ald. Rick Munoz (22nd), who has been Alderman for 18 years. The race is contentious; with two powerful Chicago public figures facing off. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has yet to announce who he plans to endorse, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has endorsed Munoz, while Gov. Pat Quinn supports Brown. Chicago Tonight spoke with both candidates to learn more in anticipation of their appearance on our program on March 14.
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Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown says she's received 11 direct threats to her since about 2008. One man is serving additional time behind bars for threatening to rape and kill both her and her daughter; another pair of men, she says, drew pictures of a gun and sent them to her. Yet she is running for her fourth term as Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County because she "loves serving the people." Critics say, however, that she hasn't used her last 12 years in office wisely, and that Cook County is trailing behind other counties with more modern electronic filing systems. Chicago Tonight spoke with Clerk Brown to learn more about how she would modernize the office--and to address some controversy. Excerpts:
1) What have you done to modernize the office in your past 12 years?
It’s a model of reform. We have digitized over 15 million records and brought it to a bench mark for others to follow for this court system. I’ve worked with law enforcement to create electronic ticketing—filing them electronically—and we’ve reduced the amount of time officers have to spend on the street, so we contribute to public safety. We’ve formed e-filing from your home or office. When I took office, there were two divisions where employees were still writing in large gray books. We’ve come from the dark ages into light. We saved the county a significant amount of money. We’ve put forms online for victims of domestic violence to fill out, so they can file their orders of protection. And we have the mortgage surplus fund. We have a search engine where people can see if they have money coming up. We have one of the lowest turnovers in the county because we train our employees.
2) How has the office changed during your tenure?
Well, what you have to understand is that to reform this office and make it a model of excellence for people to see, we had to step back and reorganize and structure the office. Once we restructured it to work in the most efficient and effective manner, we worked toward rising revenue, saving taxpayer money by raising $356 million new revenue for Cook County. I inherited an office that was at a deficit, and we have moved that deficit into a profit situation. There is a significant profit margin now. And we did that by sending our finance staff to conferences to learn how clerks of courts raise money. We put in a $6 million cashier and security system to better serve people. They can file it from anywhere in the county. We were concerned for those in the suburbs to drive all the way down to Daley Plaza to file, so we’re saving time. That’s a green court technology, and we help people to be able to file in a timelier fashion. And I also put out no fee filing boxes throughout the county, so if you can’t file electronically or if you’re not filing on your first case, it allows you to file without driving downtown.
3) Why keep running for reelection?
Probably similar to Mayor Daley or David Orr. They both held a significant number of years in office. I think I’m similar to those guys. I just simply love serving the people.
4) But you have run unsuccessfully for Mayor and president of the county board?
Yes, and that was about serving the people too. Knowing that you have a skill and can bring a certain amount of change, reform, and raising the revenue here, I knew that each of those areas were in significant financial straits. I felt that I had the skills to raise it to an all new height, and so I wanted to be able to serve even more. Not to say I don’t enjoy what I do – I really do, it’s very intriguing and challenging to me every day, but just being willing to step up to the plate and serve the people, I love serving the people.
5) If re-elected, what will you do differently than you’ve previously done?
If reelected—and I ask for the support of the people and I ask for their vote—I don’t take their vote for granted. What we want to do is take the court system to an even higher level. [We want] to bring in a paperless 21st century courtroom in line with Supreme Court. [Put] cameras in the courtroom. We want to bring technology in the courtroom where judges will be ruling off of images off their benches, attorneys will have images on their screen or on their desk, all the jurors would have computers or screen of sort, and video screens would be throughout the courtroom. The thing we’re really excited about is having interactive video conferencing, approved by the Supreme Court a few weeks ago, where the witness would come into a court room via video. It permits litigants to save money by having a witness from anywhere in the world and the best expert witness as well. I also want the attorneys on the computer to be able to electronically file any motion they’d like the judge to file, so the judge can sign it electronically and the clerk can move it out to an electronic docket. That’s how you wind up with a paperless courtroom.
6) Your opponent says you haven’t used your 12 years wisely to modernize the system – what do you say to that?
My opponent says that because he doesn’t understand the court system. I doubt if he’s ever visited our office to see the kind of technology we have. Someone with that lack of understanding, it’s difficult for them to grasp all the technological advances he made. That kind of person has a lack of understanding and is not able to grasp all the things we’ve done. Hewlett-Packard magazine wrote us up in 2005, and I was on the cover for the technological advances I made in the first five years in office. When someone says that type of thing, all I can say is that they can’t understand and it’s unfortunately a bit too complex for them to understand.
7) There have been comparisons between DuPage County’s electronic filing system and Cook County’s. Explain.
DuPage County only has about 300 cases a year, and Cook County has 2 million cases a year. Cook County has about 50 percent of the total cases annually in the state of Illinois. So trying to compare Cook County to DuPage County is like comparing a college newspaper to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. It’s more work to send out the New York Times.
8) You said in an interview with Chicago magazine that Mayor Emanuel would not be endorsing in this race. Why do you think that is?
You’d have to ask Mayor Emanuel. I think he’s done a dynamic job as Mayor and it’s his prerogative to handle these races in the way he’d like to handle them.
9) Do you think your opponent Rick Munoz has a fighting chance?
I’m focusing on winning this race. I want the public to understand that we have reformed the office and we want to bring those reforms at an even higher level, the kind of financial accountability we’ve done, saving tax payers money during tough economic times. I inherited the office when the county was already in a deficit so we are looking at the fact that we want the people to understand that we deserve their vote.
10) It has been reported that your driver is on payroll as director of investigations; can you explain that?
It’s really probably insulting the gentleman to call him a driver or chauffeur because this is someone that is a law enforcement officer who almost lost his life with the Chicago Police Department. He is a security personnel that is utilized because of the death threats I receive and because I swear in 30,000 police officers and sign my name, and people think what happens to them is because of me. There is a gentlemen in Livingston County who is doing another six years [behind bars] because of the real threats he posed to me. I’m fighting for the public to have the best service possible. I don’t call him a driver, I call him security. Unlike some elected officials who have two to three cars and a security person in the car, I have one person that’s my security person.
11) So he is your security guard and your driver?
I want to save the taxpayers money so I have him do both things. So when he gets to the office he also does the jobs of investigation. So they’re security and investigations, and escorting money we collect to our vault. And because I am saving the taxpayers money, they do both things.
12) Describe the threats you’ve received.
I’ll describe the one where the gentleman is doing the additional six years for threatening me. It was a letter that described in detail about raping me in front of my daughter. He said he would rape and kill both my daughter and myself, and told me that just because he was in jail didn’t mean anything because he had associates outside of jail to take care of it. Since we started tracking the threats in 2007 or 2008, I received 14 threats, 11 were to me directly.
13) Are these threats you say you receive worth it?
It’s worth the risk. I love what I do. I love serving the people. I cant live my life in fear, so I am doing this to serve the people.
14) In a Chicago magazine interview, Rick Munoz said that fewer than 5 percent of the cases in Cook County are allowed to be electronically filed. Is this true?
This is a voluntary system not a mandatory system. Somewhere down the road I think the Supreme Court can move to a mandatory electronically filed system.
15) What do Gov. Pat Quinn’s and SOH Mike Madigan’s endorsement mean to you?
What that says to me is that they respect what we’ve done with the court system and they respect my abilities.
16) What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Innovative, hard-working and tough-minded.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Alderman Rick Munoz has received some major endorsements this election season, ranging from Rep. Jan Schakowsky to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. After 18 years as Alderman of the 22nd Ward, he's trying to make his way into the Clerk's office of the Cook County Circuit Court. But does he have the chops? Chicago Tonight spoke with Rick Munoz to find out. Excerpts:
1) You’ve been an Alderman for 18 years – why do you want to run for clerk now?
I’m running for clerk because I honestly believe the office is in some dire need of reform. And I will work with President Preckwinkle, who has endorsed our campaign. We will start by canceling the No Bid contract that Clerk Brown awarded to one of her campaign contributors. This is an Alabama company represented by right wing Republican lobbyists. The contract was so poorly written that it allows the contributor and Brown to charge users virtually unlimited fees for documents filed electronically by the courts.
2) If elected, how do you plan on modernizing the office?
That would be easy – by canceling this no bid contract and opening it up for competitive bidding to allow for electronic filing to move the office into the 21st Century. Electronic filing would allow the office to be more transparent and less expensive to citizens in Cook County. I want to reboot the electronic filing system and bring it up to the federal government’s standard. I will work with the Illinois Supreme Court and legal community to deliver new vendors and I will work with President Preckwinkle to weed out corruption. And as Clerk of Circuit Court, I will not ask taxpayers for any new money. I believe that fiscal restraint is key to getting our financial house in order.
3) Your opponent Dorothy Brown has been in office for 12 years. How would you say she’s done?
Well, she’s done a really bad job because the main function of the clerk’s office is to administer the database services for the courts. She’s done a really bad job because she hasn’t been able to eliminate paper filing.
4) What’s your perception of what the Clerk of the Circuit Court does?
Well, the Clerk of Circuit Court is a very administerial position that provides the infrastructure to the court system. All 169 judges of the Circuit Court depend on the clerk’s office to make sure the files are present and accounted for.
5) Clerk Brown told me she’s received several death threats while in office – is that something you’d be prepared for if elected?
I’m ready to deal with any of the challenges the office might bring.
6) You’ve said that Cook County is behind DuPage County in terms of electronic filing. Can the two counties be compared?
DuPage County allows for about 90 percent of its cases to be electronically filed. There’s no reason why Cook County shouldn’t be at the same level and an accessible and transparent court system that saves taxpayers some money.
7) But the number of cases in the respective counties varies significantly.
Volume isn’t an issue here. We have court systems, like the state of New York, who are all electronically filed. We have smaller and larger court systems than Cook County that have electronic filing. The question is does she [Dorothy Brown] have the leadership to bring electronic filing to this county? The answer is no. We have electronic filing at federal level. The entire federal level has the same system. It’s not comparing apples to oranges. It’s can you buy enough apples for the county? It’s also worth noting: the Illinois Supreme Court has been a client of I2 File. It’s a commercial vendor that is providing services in DuPage. What Clerk Brown is suggesting is that DuPage vendors are too small to handle Cook County case loads. The Cook County Circuit Court is much bigger.
8) Any updates as to whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel will be endorsing you?
Rahm hasn’t made a decision as to which way he goes. I look forward to working with the Mayor.
9) You’re a recovering alcoholic – how has that battle affected you as a public figure and politician?
I’ve been blessed. I’ve got a great family and a great circle of friends in the program and I’m at a good place.
10) The Brown campaign says you filed 28,000 phony signatures?
The Chicago Board of Elections found in my favor and found the signatures were valid. If they really thought they were invalid, they should’ve challenged them and they obviously dropped the challenge.
11) You have endorsements from some big names, like Toni Preckwinkle and former city inspector David Hoffman. What does that mean in the grand scheme?
That means that progressive, forward thinking elected officials in this county recognize the work I’ve done in bringing reform and progression to the City Council. They want to see that same enthusiasm coming to the clerk's office.
12) What are three words you would use to describe yourself?
Energetic, thoughtful and caring.
This interview has been condensed and edited.