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Mariyana Spyropoulos for Cook County Circuit Court clerk

The Cook County Circuit Court clerk oversees the administrative functions of Cook County’s extensive court system, managing and preserving documents and making them available to judges, attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, and the public.

This is a critical job that requires excellent management skills, but it is a job that does not require any policy making. In our view, this should probably be an appointed post rather than the intent of the Democratic primary contest between incumbent former state Sen. Iris Martinez and challenger Mariyana Spyropoulos, commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. However, voters will also have a say.

Given the office’s lack of frills and our county’s history, it’s no surprise that it’s a particularly fertile source of corruption. Dorothy Brown, who carried on the job for twenty years, was Exhibit A. Under Brown, the office was filled with improper fundraising for his campaigns. Brown eventually became a target of federal investigators, who uncovered evidence that an employee had paid Brown $15,000 in bribes to get a job at the office. Brown’s top aide went to prison for lying to protect his boss, and Brown was never prosecuted.

Plagued by controversy, Brown chose not to run for re-election in 2020. Brown’s legacy hangs over the clerk’s office to this day.

His successor, Martinez, has tried to repair the damage left by Brown and is running for re-election. She faces a strong challenge from Spyropoulos. The Cook County Democratic Party has once again chosen not to support Martinez and is supporting Spyropoulos.

Martinez has never been the get-along type, so he sees the party’s rejection in a positive light. “I don’t go with the flow and that’s just me,” she told us.

We admire this. What concerns us more is Martinez’s campaign fundraising. Without the party’s help, he appears to rely heavily on staff in his office for financial support.

The Tribune reported late last year that Martinez collected a whopping $45,000 from 52 employees in the clerk’s office. Twenty-two of them had received promotions or significant raises at the time of the donations. At the time, that money from the clerk’s staff accounted for more than 10% of Martinez’s nearly three-year campaign fund.

Martinez has a tradition of throwing an annual birthday party to which his office staff are invited and can write checks to his campaign. He says there is no pressure on anyone to attend or donate if they do. He says donors are often people he hires or promotes, not staff he inherits. And he adds that they believe in his mission to repair the office.

Maybe. But one would have to be extraordinarily naive to think that most of the workers who donated to Martinez’s campaign felt no pressure to do so, whether the clerk wanted to enforce it or not. Going to a birthday party without a gift is bad manners, and what could be better than giving a gift – especially when your boss is running for office and it’s his birthday, to boot?

This is a bad look. In the scandal-ridden District Court clerk’s office, appearances matter more than they normally do in public life.

Spyropoulos understands this and has made ethics a central element of his campaign. He told us he would require ethics training for the 1,400 employees in this huge office.

Spyropoulos would move to have an independent IG to keep the clerk’s office honest, rather than an inspector general dedicated specifically to the clerk’s office, as is the case today. Currently, the IG is appointed by the clerk; It’s a systemic flaw that raises questions about how aggressively the person doing the job will investigate the clerk’s behavior. We applaud this proposal.

Spyropoulos says the office’s efforts to ensure employees work an honest day have been disrupted. Do some full-time employees have “full-time” jobs outside the office? He says the Freedom of Information Act calls for data on who gets regular jobs and when they never go anywhere.

More accountability doesn’t seem to bother the union that represents most civil servants’ office workers. The local team, which represents nearly three-quarters of the Teamsters, has endorsed Spyropoulos.

Spyropoulos has been with the Water Reclamation District for 13 years, so he’s familiar with the workings of the murky government agencies that leave voters scratching their heads when they enter the booth every election.

He also holds a law license and served as a prosecutor in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. He understands firsthand how critical the work of the clerk’s office is to attorneys and other professionals who work in the courts every day.

We liked its emphasis on improving technology and digitizing the office’s notorious piles of paperwork. His promise to put court documents online for easier public access is refreshing. We are also in favor of the plan to put the judges’ daily schedules on the internet.

Under Brown, Martinez improved the office’s woeful technology and created special spaces in courthouses that give victims of domestic violence a safe place to fill out paperwork, for example, for protection orders. He left this place better than he found it.

We also understand their arguments about the lack of Hispanics in major elected offices in Cook County. We agree that such a large and growing population deserves greater representation at higher levels. We’re well aware that the Cook County Democratic Party praises party loyalty over competence, so we take their endorsement of Spyropoulos with a pinch of salt.

Both candidates agree that the clerk could be an appointed official rather than an elected person. Let’s hope this becomes reality one day.

However, considering its history, this is an office that needs to be spotlessly clean and perceptions are important. Our support goes to Spyropoulos.

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