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CHICAGO – Iris Martinez made history as the first Latina Cook County Circuit Court clerk.

Now, the former state senator is pledging a new beginning for an office that was a source of controversy under longtime clerk Dorothy Brown. But that transition is off to a rocky start.

In an exclusive interview with WGN Investigates, Martinez says her team has identified numerous issues, including cluttered Daley Center hallways and how some employees are paid.

“There were a few surprises when we got here,” Martinez says.

She pins the blame on Brown, who led the office for two decades, and didn’t seek a sixth term amid reports of a federal investigation. Brown, though, strongly denies the allegations.

“When I walked around before I was sworn in – I saw hallways full of boxes,” Martinez says.

The boxes have been moved but other challenges remain.

Namely, how to keep the nation’s second largest court system running, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Martinez says she is trying to space out staff where possible, to keep everyone safer.

Technology remains a challenge, as well.

Under Brown, taxpayers spent $36 million on a new online case management system. But Martinez says more can be done to make the nation’s second large court system more efficient. 

Martinez has ordered an audit of the office, to begin early next year, in hopes of learning what else needs attention.

Whatever issues may arise, Brown says it’s not her doing.

“If Iris Martinez is having a bumpy transition, it is her own fault, because she rebuffed my efforts to properly transition her, and she obviously does not have a plan or a clue on how to run the office,” Brown says in a statement. “She is a legislator and not an administrator, and I will not be her scapegoat. She needs to stop whining and start managing.”

Martinez told WGN Investigates she had not communicated with Brown, an allegation Brown denies.

“She rebuffed my attempts to properly transition with her, and when we did meet over a [four-day] period, including a tour, she and her team were not attentive, and asked less than 10 questions,” Brown says in her statement.

Brown’s full statement is below.

On Saturday, The Puerto Rican Agenda responded to Dorothy Brown’s comments, particularly her statement alleging Martinez’s team has shown disrespect to the American English language by speaking Spanish at work, along with Martinez’s hiring of Puerto Ricans as management.

“We must dispel the rhetoric that the Latinx folks are here to take over, that the Spanish language is a sign of disrespect, and that there cannot be unity and solidarity. We will continue to advance the work together, not apart,” the organization said in a statement Saturday.

The full statement from the Puerto Rican Agenda is below:

The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago represents dozens of Puerto Rican led and serving organizations that provide services, advocacy and resources to Humboldt Park residents and families of color all over the city of Chicago.

The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago in the aftermath of the assassination of George Floyd organized a vigil in Humboldt Park to condemn racism, to elevate our solidarity, and to call the Puerto Rican community into action. In the spirit of Dr. Conrad Worrill we continue to speak out against anti-black racism through the work of our organizations and in solidarity with the black community.

The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago’s work has always included advancing the liberation and self-determination of Black people. Our solidarity with the black community will continue to be representative of our shared lived experiences of colonialism and structural racism.

Recently a letter was written by former Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown with claims that are not rooted in facts or representative of reality in response to Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez uncovering some concerns around filing and inequitable salaries with WGN.

Iris Martinez did not intend to undermine members of the Black Community, on the contrary, decisions that she makes in the area of equity will have a positive impact for both Latinx and Black community.

We are living within a political moment that begs for black and brown coalition. Many leaders in the Latinx and Black community have worked diligently to restore relationships that will ensure that we achieve a more just and civil world.

Dorothy Brown’s letter to WGN in response to newly elected Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez contributes to a historical tension between the Latinx and Black community. The Black community showed a tremendous amount of support by turning out in high numbers so that Iris Martinez would become the first Latina Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.

We must dispel the rhetoric that the Latinx folks are here to take over, that the Spanish language is a sign of disrespect, and that there cannot be unity and solidarity. We will continue to advance the work together, not apart.

The Puerto Rican Agenda of Chicago is non-profit organization comprised of local Puerto Rican leaders that informs policy leading to self-determination of Puerto Rican Chicago, the diaspora, and Puerto Rico.