Clerk Yarbrough touts ‘method to her madness,’ says hiring criticism ‘is purely personal’

Yarbrough sat down for a frank and free-wheeling interview to discuss her 11 months on the job, answering criticisms, touting accomplishments — and insisting she’s not eyeing a statewide run in the near future.

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Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough in her office on Friday.

Rachel Hinton/Chicago Sun-Times file

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough says that good-government watchdog Michael Shakman’s criticisms of her office have nothing to do with politics or patronage.

“Give me a break,” Yarbrough told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday. “Let me just say this is purely personal.”

When the two met, Yarbrough says Shakman wouldn’t even shake her hand. And after she was elected, he tried to get a federal monitor installed in the clerk’s office before she’d even stepped foot in it.

The reason? Yarbrough couldn’t say.

“I’m the first woman and the first African American in this position,” she said.

But even as she volunteered that information, Yarbrough said she has to be careful about bringing race and gender into the discussion.

“Why not bring race into it? I don’t know, let other people say that. I’d rather you know I’ve run on my record. I get elected because people [who] know me know I’ve been effective at being a state representative, effective at being a recorder of deeds, effective at being a clerk, I have a party position. I’m effective at doing that job as well. And I think what people know about Karen Yarborough is she’s effective at what she does. She is not perfect, she makes mistakes. However, she does do the right thing for the right reasons and there really in fact is a method to her madness.”

Yarbrough sat down for a frank and free-wheeling interview with the Chicago Sun-Times to discuss her 11 months on the job, answering the criticisms, but also touting her accomplishments — and insisting she’s not eyeing a statewide run in the near future.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough speaks at a press conference last January. File Photo

Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The headlines over the past few months have been dominated by her run-ins with Shakman or the decades-old court decrees that bear his name. The decrees are designed to keep politics out of hiring and the internal affairs of county and city government.

The time spent on all that is frustrating for the clerk because “there’s a job to do.” She has some history with Shakman, arguing that when she was in the recorder’s office the goalposts to end federal oversight were moved “on a regular basis.”

As for the allegations in Shakman’s September court motion that she’s running an “illegal patronage employment system,” Yarbrough said they’re “preposterous” and “outrageous.”

“I don’t have the time or the inclination to deal with that kind of thing,” she said. “I have an office to run, people who are depending on me to do the right thing for the right reason … Let me just say this is purely personal.”

Her comments elaborate on Yarbrough and her lawyer’s official court response to Shakman: “It thus seems apparent Plaintiffs’ issue is not with the office, but the office holder.”

Attorney Michael L. Shakman

Attorney Michael L. Shakman speaks to the media in 2014. File Photo.

Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Asked to respond to Yarbrough’s characterization of his motivations, Shakman said his allegations “have zero to do with my relationship with her or my views of her.”

He contends that Yarbrough “doesn’t embrace reform and seeks to maintain a patronage operation in her office.”

“My problem with her is very simple: she had a monitor [in the Recorder of Deeds] for all the years she was active there,” Shakman said. “The monitor found instance after instance of her violating the rules. She’s not interested in patronage reform. That’s why she’s still involved in this litigation and [County Board President] Toni Preckwinkle and the county are long gone from it.”

And Shakman says he has shaken hands with Yarbrough in earlier meetings.

But Yarbrough argues that the Shakman stuff is just a distraction.

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough holds up plaque she keeps in her office.

Rachel Hinton/Chicago Sun-Times

The first year has been “busy,” she said, as she gets ready for the merging of the clerk’s office — which administers elections and handles birth certificates, marriage licenses and other vital statistics — with the record of deeds office — which is responsible for all the records relating to relate estate transactions.

She’s already implemented changes, which included written job descriptions and creating a policy manual for employees as well as a satellite rotation policy for supervisors, which incensed some supervisors but Yarbrough saw as an opportunity to bring consistency to an office that lacked it.

That rotation policy was one of the issues Shakman pointed to as a problem in the office, saying it was created to make life difficult for some supervisors, so they would quit and Yarbrough could appoint replacements.

“Obviously the supervisors weren’t happy with this, but the job is the job and the place to work is the place to work. … Wherever you’re needed, you should be ready, willing and able to go and do the job there,” Yarbrough said. “It’s going well though aside from we have a couple of outliers who don’t want to participate.”

In addition to merging the offices, her long to-do list includes adding two new languages on the March primary ballot and implementing the new election equipment she received in the hopes of making sure people know “that their voice is heard … and their vote is safe.”

And the office is her only focus for now — she said Friday she doesn’t think she’ll run for the Illinois Secretary of State position now that longtime incumbent Jesse White announced he will not run for re-election.

But even as she closed the door, Yarbrough did not slam it shut.

“[Am I interested?] Certainly, always have interest. Now am I going to pull the trigger? I don’t think so. There’s plenty to do here, and I would like to see this through. My total focus is not on what Jesse White is going to do, my total focus is on what I need to do in this office and what I need to do in absorbing the duties of the recorder’s office, and as much as I can, a smooth transition.”

Yarbrough hopes the public won’t focus on the Shakman allegations, but on her drive to make sure the county’s elections are secure and their voices are heard.

And even as she made her pitch to the public, she couldn’t resist a dig at Shakman, whose anti-patronage fight dates back to the 1970s.

“Come have lunch with me, that’s what I would say,” Yarbrough said when asked what she would tell the public. “Let’s talk. And I would like them to see all of my body of work that I’ve done since I’ve been in public office, and then judge me by that — not by some guy 50 some years ago who didn’t win his election. I won mine. OK? All of them.”

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