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A pol’s ethical lapses inspire us

Updated: April 11, 2013 6:40AM



Cook County taxpayers owe their new recorder of deeds, Karen Yarbrough, a debt of gratitude for committing enough ethical faux pas in her first three months to remind us it’s time to re-launch the campaign to consolidate several similar county offices, including hers, into one, to save money and improve efficiency.

So thank you, Karen, though that was hardly your intention.

The Better Government Association and FOX-32 recently revealed that Yarbrough gave a family friend a $75,000-a-year government job despite the friend’s conviction for participating in an armored car heist.

This followed an earlier story about Yarbrough and her aides trying to manipulate the hiring process in the recorder’s office before she was even elected.

That inappropriate intrusion may have violated a court-imposed ban on politically motivated employment decisions.

Yarbrough is a former state legislator who had an ethically challenged past long before taking over the recorder’s office, where 200 employees maintain real estate sale and foreclosure records.

While she was in the General Assembly, she ran an insurance business in Maywood, a suburb just west of Chicago where her husband, Henderson, is the mayor.

Karen’s firm was hired by a developer who needed Henderson’s backing on a Maywood project, and Karen wrote to a state agency to advocate for the project without disclosing her financial ties.

Reform groups consider it a conflict of interest to use your public position for private gain, but Yarbrough had a different view: “I do not see the ethical problem here.”

That’s obvious. And it brings us to a point: Enough is enough.

It’s one thing to put up with bad apples in an agency that’s necessary, but it’s particularly galling to find it in an agency that doesn’t need to exist, at least as a stand-alone entity with an elected leader at the top and a clout-heavy bureaucracy below.

It’s time to resurrect an old cause: Consolidating county agencies that perform similar functions: assessor, treasurer, board of review, recorder of deeds and clerk of the circuit court.

They all provide inter-related services: Determining tax rates, sending out tax bills, collecting taxes, handling tax appeals and maintaining records.

So we could save millions of those aforementioned tax dollars by combining the five bureaucracies into one or two and offloading most of the elected officials who run them and the dozens of fawning factotums who serve the bosses.

That, of course, would be only a start: Cook has more than 2,200 separate units of government, more than any county in the country.

Collectively, they’re too wasteful and too political but not accountable enough and, as Yarbrough has illustrated, they’re causing more trouble than they’re worth.

So let’s resume the county streamlining conversation that gained some traction, though not enough to prevail a year ago.

And while we’re at it, let’s use former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson’s corruption case to rekindle a similar discussion about shrinking the oversized and underperforming City Council, which has produced 35 crooked aldermen in the last 40 years.

First Lady Michelle Obama says the obesity epidemic among Americans, especially children, threatens our nation’s physical health.

Local government has a similar problem with excessive bulk. And that threatens our financial health.

Thanks again, Karen, for inadvertently putting the issue back in the spotlight.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at ashaw@bettergov.org or 312-386-9097



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