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Brown: HELP WANTED, Chicago election czar

Board of Election : Commissioner Richard A. Cowen during 2010 board meeting. (File Photo by John H White/Chicago Sun-Times.

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It’s not every day that one of the most sensitive positions in Chicago city government comes open with the stipulation that only Republicans need apply.

Even more unusual, this most insider of insider jobs is being advertised on Monster.com, and applications will be posted online for public viewing.

That’s the procedure Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Evans has decided upon to fill a vacancy on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, the three-member panel that oversees city elections.

Although such public application processes have become more common for government appointments in recent years, it’s a definite first for the election board.

Under Illinois law, vacancies on the board are filled by the Cook County Circuit Court. Evans must select a candidate who is then voted up or down by the rest of the judges.

Usually this process takes place completely outside public view with political powers attempting to exert their influence on the appointment, with considerable success historically.

Evans said he decided to switch to online applications in keeping with other efforts to make the court more transparent and accountable.

OPINION

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The current opening was created in late April by the death of Commissioner Richard Cowen, a Republican lawyer who had served on the board for 20 years.

It’s a plum job, paying $77,798 a year for what amounts to a part-time position. The salary, which seems ridiculous even though the job responsibilities can keep a person very busy around election time, is set by the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

All the election commissioners in recent years have maintained separate law practices.

But being a lawyer is not one of the job requirements, and Evans said he is only looking for the “best and brightest,” no matter the applicant’s professional background.

Commissioners serve three-year terms, but can be reappointed and usually are.

The deadline to apply is Oct. 8. Evans said he hopes to begin interviews immediately afterward.

For those excluded by the requirement that the job go to a Republican, don’t despair.

Just as soon as the Republican slot on the board is filled, election board Chairman Langdon Neal is expected to officially resign, which will create a new opening. Neal announced his intention to step down in April, just before Cowen’s death.

The opening created by Neal’s departure will be available to all comers, although it will most certainly go to a Democrat.

That’s for the obvious reason that Democrats still control Cook County, and they aren’t about to give up majority control of the agency that controls the election apparatus.

Marisel Hernandez, a Democrat who will be the last holdover on the board, was first appointed in 2007.

Communications consultant Christopher Robling, a former Republican commissioner on the election board, said it was long customary for the county chairmen of the political parties to identify their preferred candidate to the chief judge.

I asked Evans if he had been contacted by Gov. Bruce Rauner regarding the Cowen vacancy.

Evans said he has not heard directly from the governor, but had been contacted by many individuals who held themselves out as representatives of the Republican Party.

Both openings have drawn attention from insiders, Evans conceded.

“We’ve been in receipt of calls and letters,” Evans said.

Of course, there’s nothing to preclude Evans from going through this very open process and still picking the candidate recommended by the politicians.

Although he promises to put the job applications online, Evans said he does not intend to do the same with the three letters of reference each candidate is required to submit. That won’t prevent me from asking to see them.

“I think the public needs to know this position is a very important position,” Evans said.

He’s right about that.

Election commissioners can determine which candidates qualify for the ballot. Just as important, they control the voting procedures and apparatus that govern whether we have open and honest elections.

It’s a job well worth holding. Just don’t get your hopes up without the right people in your corner.

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