The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

February 21, 2013

A deeper look at row offices


Daily Item

---- — Any conversion from elected to more thoroughly appointed county government faces decades of inertia and deeply ingrained cultural expectations. It is a tough sell.

Before everyone accepts characterizations, interpretations and suspicions about the proposition, however, why not take a serious look at possible improvements in expense and operations.

Those are among the pronounced reasons offered by two Northumberland County commissioners who floated the idea.

Commissioners Vinny Clausi, chairman, and Stephen Bridy, vice chairman, believe the county can save money and the executive branch of government can instill greater diligence in job performance if titles such as treasurer, prothonotary, register, recorder and sheriff were led by appointed professionals rather than elected office holders.

The idea invites residents of counties throughout Pennsylvania to examine the autonomy and efficiency of government offices that have less to do with policy than with function.

Few people know very many details about how county row offices work. Most exist mainly to manage official documents and public records -- court dockets, licenses, deeds, wills, voter lists and tax records -- and the associated revenue from taxes, fees and fines.

A lot of this work has been or could be modernized for efficiency, were it not for some archaic traditions and patronage practices that network office holders to party politics and voting blocs. Kinship and connection remain significant job qualifications in many courthouses throughout the state.

Removing such political considerations from the operation of offices like the prothonotary, for example, makes sense. The prothonotary keeps records for the courts, which theoretically operate according to law, without fear or favor. Why should an office like that be mixed up in electoral politics?

Northumberland County's idea was immediately characterized as an effort to concentrate political power in the board of commissioners' office. If that turns out to be the goal, or even a significant consequence, there may be reason for hesitation.

If county officials and voters can move the discussion deeper than reflexive reactions and suspicions about motive, the very least that can come of the idea is probably a clearer understanding of how well these offices are operated, how qualified a number of elected leaders are to be administrators and how much attention any of this gets from voters.

This is about the public getting its money's worth of service from some comparatively obscure government offices, which is almost always a good idea.