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Thursday, April 28, 2016 12:09 am

County quirk

Law makes it hard to recruit clerk candidates here

A big election year for Illinois policymakers means some politicians are stepping on eggshells, but that’s not the case for Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray.

Despite the criticism he encountered as a result of running out of ballots during the presidential primary election in March, Gray, a Republican, still has no Democratic opposition in the upcoming general election. Part of the reason is a quirk in state law that requires the county clerk of Sangamon County to receive training and certification as a township property assessor. Democrats may have trouble finding a candidate who qualifies.

The county clerk’s mistaken assumptions on the necessary number of ballots to print for the election, at least by some accounts, cost some registered voters their votes in one of the highest-turnout primaries held in the state. Others got to vote at the expense of their time and frustration.

For example, the State Journal-Register reported that 17-year-old Jacob Crawford was one of many registered voters who were told that Grace Bible Chapel was out of ballots and that he should go to the county building to cast his vote, a seven-mile drive. Two hours later, Crawford was finally able to vote. State law allows 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if they will be 18 by the following general election.

Now a different issue related to Gray confronts voters for the general election. Voters can expect a limited pool of candidates to choose from for Gray’s position as Sangamon County Clerk, due to a quirk in state law concerning Springfield’s Capital Township.

There are two separate laws in play.

The Illinois Township Code asserts that for any township within any city that has a population of more than 50,000 people, the county clerk shall be the ex-officio township assessor. Capital Township is the only place this rule applies in the entire state of Illinois.

The Illinois Property Tax Code requires that to become certified as the township assessor, a candidate must fulfill one of six qualifications prior to filing for candidacy. The possible qualifications include becoming a certified Illinois assessing officer, a certified assessment evaluator or having a professional designation. Completion of the classes can take anywhere from three months to a year. This could make it difficult to find a qualified candidate to run for the County Clerk position in time for the election in November. The required classes are offered through the Illinois Property Assessment Institute and the Illinois Department of Revenue.

This law was put to the test in 2006 when former secretary to the clerk Linda Hawker ran against incumbent Joe Aiello for the Sangamon County Clerk seat. Hawker had to drop out of the race due to the certification requirements.

Joe Aiello, former Sangamon County Clerk and a Republican, says Capital Township is a model for other townships. “Because of the certification process, the combined duties of the township assessor and the county clerk create a level of integrity in the office,” he said.

Sangamon County Treasurer Tom Cavanaugh, also Republican, agrees.

In 2015, the Task Force on Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates called for the consolidation of coterminous places like Capital Township with the local municipality. The task force considered allowing county referendums to dissolve the township assessor position, which would create a separate county assessor’s position and office.

Another attempt to consolidate townships occurred April 21, when the Senate passed a bill that would eliminate township clerks, assessors, collectors, highway commissioners, supervisors or trustees. Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, sponsored the bill, calling on the House to pass the bill and Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign it. If the bill were to become law, it would ultimately eliminate Gray’s role as the township assessor.

Doris Turner, chairwoman for the Sangamon County Democrats, recently initiated a petition that would call on Gray to apologize to the citizens of Sangamon County for what she describes as a “poorly handled election.” Last month, Turner said that she would be seeking a candidate to run against Gray, but she has not announced one yet.

“The right to vote is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” Turner said. “It is a constitutionally guaranteed American right. Don Gray took away that right for many voters in Sangamon County.”

Contact Brittany Hilderbrand at intern@illinoistimes.com.
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