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Preckwinkle stays neutral on Brown's request to increase tech fee

If Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown wants to hike a fee by 66 percent, she’s welcome to try.

That’s Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s stance on a proposal by Brown to increase a technology fee — currently $15 — that is tacked onto filings in the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, according to a letter written by Preckwinkle that was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

But Preckwinkle also clearly wants Brown to improve her office before asking for more money, one commissioner said.

Preckwinkle wrote she “will take no position” on Brown’s effort to increase the fee to $25; the proposed hike must be approved by the county board before it could be enacted.

The charge, called the Automation and Document Storage fee, is meant to fund tech improvements in Brown’s office, which uses decades-old technology and paper records to track one of the nation’s largest court systems.

While Preckwinkle wrote she is neither for nor against the increase, she used the occasion to urge Brown to improve notoriously-shoddy customer service and downsize her office, which has traditionally employed an army of patronage workers.

“I would like to take this opportunity to clarify our mutual expectations and confirm that you will undertake to provide better service to Cook County residents while reducing your workforce,” Preckwinkle wrote in the letter, dated April 1.

In a written response, Brown pledged to work with Preckwinkle, but did not commit to specifics.

Commissioner Pete Silvestri, R-Elmwood Park, said there is little appetite to back Brown’s proposal, adding that Preckwinkle has a message for Brown, if the clerk will read between the lines.

Silvestri said Preckwinkle is telling Brown: “You need to modernize and become more efficient before you seek additional funding.”

Brown first ran for office in 2000, pledging to modernize the clerk’s office.

Brown has blamed external factors — a lack of money, the Cook County board, rules governing the court system — for failing to reach that goal.

“You’re talking about money, you’re talking about the fact that I am responsible to a lot of different agencies. I don’t move by myself,” Brown said last month, when asked why progress was slow. “I have been pulling everybody along as fast as I can. It’s rules and regulations.”

Commissioner John Fritchey, D-Chicago, said the proposal was doomed by recent headlines about Brown’s involvement in a troubled state anti-violence program that’s been the subject of a series of investigations.

He said Brown has sown ill will among commissioners by thumbing her nose at board efforts to oversee her office more closely, then asking for funding increases and approval to make more hires.

“I think it’s a pretty tactful letter on [Preckwinkle’s] part,” Fritchey said. “[Brown’s] office is probably suffering more from a lack of trust than a lack of funds at this point. She has increasingly taken the position that the only role the Board of Commissioners should have with respect to her office is to keep giving her more money.”