The Champaign County Recorder of Deeds — in fact, the recorder of deeds in any county — is an office that usually doesn’t get much attention. But the two candidates for Champaign County recorder both have plans that could make this the last time the office appears on the ballot.
In this race, the challenger is Democrat Mike Ingram. His yard signs, if you include the fine print, read, “Make Mike Ingram the Last County Recorder”.
“I am in the atypical position of asking for your vote for an office that I’d like to eliminate from our county,” said Ingram, when he introduced himself at a September 9 candidate’s forum held by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County (Illinois Public Media was one of the forum’s co-sponsors). Ingram is a Champaign County Board member, who argues that the county doesn’t really need an elected recorder.
It’s the job of the recorder of deeds to maintain property records for the county, including deeds, mortgages, and liens, where anyone can look them up. Banks, title companies and real estate agents use the recorder’s office a lot.
But Ingram says the county clerk should take over the recorder’s duties. It’s an idea the Champaign County Board has rejected before, as recently as 2018. Still, Ingram says merging the offices would save the county the money it spends on a recorder’s salary.
“It is a position of the past,” said Ingram at the candidate’s forum. “And the staff that is doing great work in that office would be better off without an overpaid elected official heading their office.”
That official Ingram is talking about is currently Republican Mark Shelden, who is finishing up his first term as recorder, and who previously served 14 years as Champaign County Clerk. Shelden doesn’t think the clerk and recorder’s offices should be combined, and he opposed the idea in 2018. He says as recorder, he does vital work, and removing his position would amount to a staff cut. Instead, Shelden favors changing the way the Champaign County Recorder is selected, by making it an appointed position, with the county executive making the choice, subject to county board ratification.
Shelden outlined his proposal at an August 27 news conference, where he also proposed changes to other county offices, such as merging the treasurer, auditor and supervisor of assessments into an appointed financial officer. In Champaign County, the supervisor of assessments is already appointed. Shelden says the office has maintained a consistently high professional standard that way, because it is treated as a professional position, not a political one.
“In the long term, I want to see this office (the recorder) appointed in that same fashion, so that we remove the political side of this, and then take it into more of a professional, and who can do the job, and have a regular hiring process for that position,” said Shelden.
The debate between those who would elect posts like the recorder and deeds and those would make it a professional appointment has been going on for a long time. John Jackson, a political science professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, categorizes the recorder as a ministerial position, rather than a political one. Jackson says the push for electing such posts goes back to the U.S. populist movement of the 1820s and 30s, and the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
“His idea was that you didn’t need experts,” Jackson says. “You also needed to keep the government as close to the people as possible, that the common man could run the government, could step into any of these offices, and learn how to do them, or already know how to do them.”
It’s a tradition that Mark Shelden’s proposal to appoint the county recorder pushes against. And Shelden has a point, says Chris Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and a senior scholar with the University’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He says maybe it’s more practical to have the voters choose the policy-makers, and let those people choose people for non-policy jobs like the recorder.
“The policymakers should be about making the decisions about which way to go,” said Mooney. “And then they have experts execute those policy agendas for you. Because how do I know? I’m a voter. I don’t know if somebody’s going to be a good recorder. I don’t even know what a recorder is, for the most part.”
The president of the Illinois Association of County Clerks and Recorders disagrees. Democrat Josh Langfelder, the Sangamon County Recorder, says he doesn’t like to take sides on political issues, but generally feels the recorder should be elected by the voters, not appointed by county officials.
“An elected individual is more prone to be cognizant of what’s going on in their office,” says Langfelder, “and focus more to do a great job for their community, and to make sure the customers that come in have good customer service and are served correctly.”
Langfelder also believes it’s better to keep the recorder as a separate office in larger counties like his. (Sangmon County’s 2019 population estimate was around 194,600, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). But a majority of Illinois Counties already combine the clerk and recorder’s offices, as Mike Ingram proposes. And more of the state’s larger counties are joining the list. Cook County, which is the state’s most populous county with more than five million people, is slated to move to a combined clerk and recorder this year. So is Winnebago County, with a 2019 population estimate of 292,500. McLean County, Illinois’ largest county by territory, changed to a combined clerk and recorder a few years ago.
Meanwhile, all of Illinois’ county recorders, as well as combined clerk-recorders, are chosen by the voters, not appointed by county leaders. But Champaign County could make the change, similar to counties where the coroner or supervisor of assessments is appointed instead of elected.
Electing Mike Ingram or re-electing Mark Shelden will not make their proposals for the Champaign County Recorder’s office an automatic reality. Both Shelden’s proposal to appoint the recorder and Ingram’s plan to move the recorder’s duties to the county clerk’s office would require approval by voters in a referendum. That referendum would have to be placed on the ballot by the county board or by a citizens’ petition. And neither question is on the November 3 ballot in Champaign County. But whoever wins the recorder’s contest in November will have the bigger platform to promote his idea.