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Ald. Ricardo Munoz challenging Dorothy Brown for court clerk

Dorothy Brown Ricardo Munoz.

Dorothy Brown and Ricardo Munoz.

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Updated: March 28, 2012 8:06AM

The most prominent Cook County primary race this year is for an office that generally is low-profile: clerk of the Circuit Court.

Chicago Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd), who has been on the City Council since 1993, is challenging three-term incumbent Dorothy Brown, also of Chicago.

At the heart of the race is what many rank-and-file lawyers privately regard as a scandal: the office’s inefficiency in handling court records and the frequency with which key documents go missing. One Chicago politician jokes that the office is so antiquated that it’s the largest consumer of carbon paper anywhere.

Both Munoz and Brown claim they can fix those problems.

Although Munoz, 47, never has administered a large office — the clerk of the Circuit Court employs 2,066 people — he says he can get the operation working smoothly.

“I honestly believe that we can do a better job of administering that office and running it more efficiently,” Munoz said. “For 10 years, the incumbent has been talking about electronic filing, and to this day less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the cases that are filed with the clerk of the Circuit Court’s office are electronically filed.”

But Brown, 58, says she has been making steady process in upgrading the office since she first arrived — back when some cases still were recorded in hand-written docket books. She says she would have done more had she not been hampered by Illinois Supreme Court restrictions.

A transition report she requested when she was first elected called the office’s technology “woefully outdated,” but there has been significant progress since, Brown said.

“Now we are 100 percent automated,” she said. “In the county division, I put a different kind of software in, and we actually image every document. . . . I think we are doing a great job with the number of people we have.”

Munoz has challenged Brown to reject contributions from employers and county vendors, for which Brown has been criticized in the past. But Brown has declined to do so, saying she doesn’t solicit the contributions and doesn’t keep track of who makes them. She expressed surprise over a revelation that On Line Information Services, a company that got a no-bid, e-filing contract from her office, had given her $21,400 since 2001 and also donated to Bridget Dancy, Brown’s chief information officer, who helped approve the contract and who ran for trustee in suburban Matteson.

Brown also has been criticized over the years for other alleged ethical lapses, including overseeing a “Jeans Day” program in which some money collected from employees for wearing jeans to work was not accounted for and having a “security officer” who acted more like a personal chauffeur.

In response, Brown says the fund-raising allegations were “political ploys.” She says a Jeans Day investigation by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard found no wrongdoing. She said she needed the security officer because her name is on the court documents people see.

Brown criticizes Munoz for voting to privatize Chicago’s parking meters, a vote he now admits was a mistake. He also was criticized in 2009 when he acknowledged his daughter was admitted to Whitney Young Magnet High School after he called the principal to ask that an initial decision not to admit her be overturned. Munoz said he made 10 to 15 such calls a year on behalf of constituents.

This is Munoz’s first attempt at a more prominent office. Brown, a onetime CTA auditor, has built up name recognition through many races. Last year, she lost a close race for Chicago treasurer. Two years ago, she ran for Cook County Board president, but lost in the primary. In 2007, she lost the mayoral race to Richard M. Daley.

Both candidates are backed by some political heavy hitters.

Brown has been endorsed by Gov. Pat Quinn and Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Munoz is supported by Chicago Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), former City of Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Illinois Appellate court Judge Aurelia Pucinski, Brown’s predecessor as clerk of the Circuit Court, last week endorsed Munoz, saying Brown has made a mess of the office. Pucinski told the Chicago Sun-Times that litigants who came before her sometimes find paperwork is missing from court files maintained by Brown’s office.

In a prepared statement, Brown’s campaign responded: “Ms. Pucinski shows a vengeful bias and a lack of legal knowledge that should alarm every law-abiding taxpayer in Cook County. She nearly ruined the Cook County Clerk’s [sic] office in her 12 years of patronage, wild spending, poor customer service, party switching, and gross mismanagement in her quest for personal gain.”

No Republican filed to run for the office.

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