A controversial referendum: why eliminating the Cook County Recorder of Deeds could cost more than it saves

by Chicago Agent


When Karen Yarbrough became the Cook County recorder of deeds in 2012, she brought with her a unique set of skills and experiences. An entrepreneur and Realtor, Yarbrough was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 2000, where she represented the state’s seventh district for three consecutive terms and served on seven committees, including housing and urban development, environmental health, public safety, computer technology and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus.

Now, as the recorder of deeds, she has overseen a number of impressive reforms to the office, including an electronic recording system, a dramatic expansion of its fraud division, and a work-flow analysis that modernized the office’s operations and led to a time- and cost-saving consolidation of its workforce.

Yet, despite her achievements, Yarbrough’s position is under threat. In a highly contentious vote earlier this summer, the Cook County commissioners approved a ballot initiative that would fold the recorder of deeds office into the Cook County clerk’s office; come November, Cook County voters will have the option of eliminating Yarbrough’s office and position. Although some commissioners have claimed that merging the offices would save the county a considerable sum of money ($800,000 is the number most often cited), critics charge that such statements do not consider the true cost of the merger, which would entail combining two very different offices with their own bureaucracies, cultures and computer systems. Furthermore, the recorder of deeds has been, in recent decades, a stepping stone for some of Illinois’ most influential Black politicians – both Carol Mosley-Braun and Jesse White were recorders – and some argue that eliminating the office will limit political opportunities for Cook County’s Black population; indeed, when Cook County’s commissioners voted on the ballot initiative, all 10 who voted in favor are white and Latino, while the five who voted against it are Black.

To discuss the scope of her office, its innovations and its possible closure, we spoke with Yarbrough by phone. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Chicago Agent (CA): What does the Cook County Recorder of Deeds do?

Karen Yarbrough (KY): We protect the public record, and that’s real estate record. We provide a service that helps everybody know who owns what. It’s a system that we have in place in the United States, while in other countries, where they do not have this service, nobody knows what they are buying.

Furthermore, agents like to get to the closing table, and they like to get there rather quickly. So speed of closing comes into play all the time, and obviously, if the paperwork is not done correctly, then we do not close.

CA: Walk us through the process of what you’re doing with deeds to make sure they are ready at the closing table. What’s the minutiae involved in that process?

KY: You cannot pass title unless you have a clean title. So the title officers, they do that. And they certainly do not want the documents laying around my office, collecting dust, or worse, not recorded in such a fashion where they can see them. So it has to be done right. And every time our front-line staff looks at a document to be recorded, they make sure certain things are in place.

I spend a considerable amount of time with my employees in terms of making sure they understand why we do what we do here, and why their jobs are important. I think in many cases, because many of the employees had worked here so many years, they could not connect the dots. They get a piece of paper; they stamp it; they move it along. But they did not understand the importance of the documents, and how important their jobs were in terms of making sure certain things were in certain places.

CA: Talk about some of the ways you have improved the recorder of deeds office.

KY: When I got here, they had an office on the second floor called the “Mortgage Fraud Office.” I thought it was inappropriately named, so we renamed it the “Property Fraud Unit.” Mortgage companies and the banks, they can deal with the fraud. They’ve got teams of attorneys that can deal with that. So we completely revamped the fraud unit. I brought it from the second floor down to the first floor so that it could be right in the midst of the going-ons in the office.

We brought national recognition to the Property Fraud Alert program. Many of the recorders across the country were not pursuing that, because for them, it’s not a core issue for us. We are supposed to record. Whatever somebody brings us, they record it, and everybody goes home. But for me, somebody’s house getting stolen is a big deal. And so we’ve employed some investigators to look into those cases, and we have created a judicial review process to invalidate those clearly fraudulent recordings. And it does not cost the taxpayers any more money. Furthermore, we have registered close to 50,000 people for our free Property Fraud Alert program. When I got here, less than 500 were registered.

We now record DD214s, which are the military discharge papers for veterans. We opened a Veterans’ Welcoming Center to help assist them with the DD214 storage program, and we also implemented a military discount card. When veterans come in to record their military discharge papers, we sign them up for the discount card, which offers them all kinds of goods and services with percentages off.

Finally, we’re also doing e-recording for the first time. There was a law passed in 2014 that allowed us to accept deeds and issue prints or stamps electronically, and we’ve been working the last year and a half to implement the technology.

CA: Talk about your initiatives in defending the property rights of county residents, particularly those of lower financial means.

KY: Demystifying the whole process for constituents is important to me. When people know better, they can do better – and when we host workshops, you really can see the lights go on in people’s eyes.

When you educate people, it helps them to help themselves, and they do not have to depend on government. They do not have to hire an attorney to explain a paragraph to them. They have an understanding of their own. So for many people, we are demystifying this whole process of owning a home and what it means, the lien holders, the mortgage holder and all of those kinds of things. We have an outreach on the calendar for probably every day this month, some twice a day. People want information.

For instance, when consumers go to the closing table, they get all these documents to sign. They feel like they sign their life away. They do not understand that they are getting a copy of their deed at the time of closing. And when they come in here 30 years later, they ask me for a copy of their deed. Well, they already have a copy. What they are really looking for is the release from their mortgage, because they have paid it off.

We have also brought new programs to the fold, such as a new annual, signature program on property after death that we launched Sept. 17 at Malcolm X College. At many earlier outreaches, attendees would tell me, “Karen, this was very helpful. However, my mom died back in 1978. I’ve been living in the home all of this time. I’ve paid the mortgage. I’ve paid the taxes. But it’s still in her name, and she’s passed away. What do I do?” Now obviously, I can pass that off and just simply tell her, “Oh, you need an attorney.” Now that’s not really being helpful. I mean, she probably knew that before she asked that question. However, what we are doing now is letting people know that there’s a way.

And that way is this: in 2012, a law went into effect called Transfer on Death Instrument. That allows a person to, without a will or trust, complete a document and name who they want the property to go to. And it could be 10 people. They can get two witnesses, have the item notarized, and they can record it in our office. And they know where the property is going to go. It does not have to go to probate. It does not have to go anywhere. The only thing the person would have to do is once the person has passed away, the heir can come into the office with a copy of the death certificate, and we change the name on the deed; it does not get any better than that.

CA: So with all the different things that you are doing and all the initiatives you are pursuing, why has so much energy been devoted to folding your office in with the Clerks’ Office?

KY: I know the county is looking to save money. I get that. I pay county taxes too, and I want to save money. But I think they are being penny wise and pound foolish. They are using information from a 2011 report that considered linking the tax offices of the assessor, treasurer, clerk and board of review. But that was several years ago. Since I’ve been here and added value to this office, I fail to understand what the purpose is.

They can look at their budget and chase some dollars if they want to – they say they could save $800,000. But they have not been able to quantify those dollars. We told them they need to be very, very careful, because Peoria County just combined their clerk and recorder offices, and they are having a time of it, because there is about $1 million in upfront and unanticipated cost. By contrast, we are much larger; we are the second largest office in the United States, in fact. And our office is getting a new core application, but our computer system does not speak to the Clerks’ Office’s computer system. There are so many things.

This is too fast for voters. They do not have enough information to make an informed decision on the proposed merger. If this office gets dumped over into the clerks’ office, I promise you that they will not do what I’ve done here. That’s not to say that I’m great and good and wonderful and what have you, but I’m focused. I was elected by the people. I’m on the ballot right now unopposed. I think I’ve done a great job. I think the economy depends on me doing a great job. And if you take that $800,000 and divide it, it’s going to save each taxpayer about 15 cents. So if that’s the case, they want to trade the 15 cents for all of what we’ve done here in the short term? I think that, again, is penny wise and pound foolish.

CA: Part of what made this ballot initiative controversial was that your office has been the launching pad for some of the state’s most influential Black politicians. Carol Mosley-Braun and Jesse White, for instance, were the recorder of deeds for Cook County. Can you comment on that aspect of the proposed merger?

KY: People have tried to interject race into this whole thing, and they have made comments to me, but I do not really entertain that. I just do not. I try to keep my focus on why this office is important, rather than this is a “Black office.” It’s an office that has been around since 1831, and from the first recorder all the way up until the last four recorders, they were all white. And so I could ask, was it a white office then? Similarly, they could say this a woman’s office, but there’s only been three women who have been recorders. So maybe it’s a man’s office?

Again, I would much rather the focus be on how it’s an important office. The economy runs as a result of this office getting it right. When they sold the Sears Tower, do you think they wanted to be screwed around? They wanted to transfer a title. The land is here forever. The only thing that changes is who owns it. But they want to know that they own it, and they do not want any encumbrances there. So you got the recorder of deeds office that lets the world know who owns what.

We provide nearly $94 million in revenue for the county. This small office, with its 159 employees and its budget of $11 million – that’s what we do for the county. But we can do more, and we have done more. We can record the deeds, and we can make sure we get it right. But we can also make sure people’s property titles and their deeds are protected. We can make sure they have information. We can advocate on their behalf, instead of going to court and paying an attorney. There is so much we can do.

But that race thing, I do not want to talk about that. I want to talk about getting the job done for the people who pay to get it done.

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  • Ernest Riggen says:

    Oh sooooooo many people think that the Official Public Record is an automatic thing. Yet in reality – it takes focus, experience, innovation, and leadership to keep the Official Public Record’s integrity in tact, to keep it current and accessible, and to protect it from those that would might compromise it. Karen Yarbrough and countless other Registers of Deeds do that day in and day out. Failure to provide that oversight and management has catastrophic impact on the local and national economy. Just try locking the Recorder’s doors for a week and see what hit’s the fan. Imagine finding out (too late) that the Official Public Record has been compromised and misused. It is a problem with an almost impossible solution. Trust me — keep Karen Yarbrough in place, keep her office in place, and watch the continued growth in value to the community on behalf of all property owners.

  • Pat OBrien says:

    very informative article. Thanks

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