Recorder of Deeds: Bureaucrat or Showboat? | Feature | Chicago Reader

Recorder of Deeds: Bureaucrat or Showboat? 

The incumbent says he’s quietly modernizing this obscure office; his opponent, alderman Ed Smith, says he wants to clean it up and maybe even shut it down.

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The two Democratic candidates for Cook County Recorder of Deeds are eager to tout their plans for improving the office. But first they have to explain to voters what the hell it is.

"Every now and then when I'm out, people ask me, 'What is the Recorder of Deeds office?'" says 25th Ward alderman Ed Smith, who's challenging Moore for the seat. "And then they always ask, 'Who's there now?'"

That would be Eugene "Gene" Moore, who's been recorder since 1999. He says the reason lots of people don't know much about the office is that it's well run. "This office is a very, very quiet office," Moore says. "But it's very, very important."

The recorder's office is primarily responsible for managing and maintaining millions of property and tax lien records and collecting the fees paid every time a new document is entered into the system. Last year, according to Moore, it collected about $67 million. About $9 million covered administrative costs and salaries for the recorder's 188 employees; the rest went into the county's general coffers.

Moore says he'd like another term so he can finish the work he's started. Since he came on, the office has computerized all of its records from 1985 onward and made them searchable on the Web. By this summer the online database should go back to 1970, he says.

According to Moore, Smith is one of the people who doesn't have any idea what the recorder does. "He came into this office about a month ago to see what goes on in this office—he'd never really been in here to see what happens," Moore says. "He says the office in the basement is dirty and there's paper everywhere. We don't have any paper—we scan everything on the front end now and give it right back to the customer. He says it smells in the basement. He doesn't know anything about the process of microfilm.

click to enlarge Eugene “Gene” Moore
  • Eugene “Gene” Moore

"Why all the sudden does someone want to come into this office after he's seen all the improvement?" Moore asks.

Smith, though, maintains that the office urgently needs modernization because the records are still too hard to navigate. Just as important, he says, he would bring "professionalism" back to its hiring and management—a reference to a lawsuit filed last summer by several of Moore's ex-employees, who accused him of laying them off because they didn't do political work for him. The suit is still pending in federal court.

"This candidacy is about trust and credibility," Smith says. "It's about changing it from a dumping ground for patronage to a professional office."

"We don't discriminate against people coming to our [political] events," Moore insists. "Some people want to come out and volunteer. Some people want to help. But nobody is forced to."

Before he became recorder, Moore was a three-term state rep, longtime party activist, and friend of power brokers like John Stroger. Last fall he was officially endorsed by the party's ward and township committeemen, and among his biggest supporters is 11th Ward boss and county commissioner John Daley, the mayor's brother.

Smith skipped the county endorsement session but since then has persuaded dozens of Democratic officials to deviate from the party line and back him instead. Among them is the mayor himself.

Originally, Moore says, Mayor Daley pledged to endorse him. "He called me at [my] office," Moore says. "I went to his office, because I'd never been to his office. I was elated that the mayor called. And he told me he was supporting me."

click to enlarge Ed Smith - JON RANDOLPH

The mayor backed out for one reason, according to Moore: Smith agreed to vote for Daley's 2008 budget, including hundreds of millions of dollars in tax hikes. "He sold his own community down the drain for a few pieces of silver," says Moore.

Smith says he voted for the most recent budget—as he's voted for Daley's other budgets—because it included funding for a range of programs that needy residents in his ward rely on. "I'm my own man," he says, noting that he's voted against Daley on many issues, from the city's smoking ban to the big-box minimum-wage ordinance.

Yet he was happy to have the mayor's blessing. "When your house is on fire, you don't care who brings you water," he says. "The mayor has a very strong constituency in the city."

If elected, Smith says, he'll hire a consultant to review every aspect of the recorder's office—including whether it's even necessary. If experts determined it would make more sense to consolidate its duties with those of other county agencies, as some reformers have proposed, Smith says he'd be game: "I want to do whatever's responsible."

Moore finds the idea of eradicating the office ridiculous. Among other problems, he says, it would require changes in state law as well as a major restructuring of county operations. Smith doesn't have any interest in getting rid of the office, Moore charges; he just wants to retire from the City Council, collect a nice pension, and then collect another paycheck.

"He's a hustler off of the people," Moore says. "He's a welfare person. He's getting paid by the city and now he wants to get paid by the county. No way!"   v

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