The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 11, 2013

Violins on desolation row

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— Several elected officials in Northumberland County made their first appearance in years on the front of The Daily Item last week in the pointless, humiliating, supplicant role of pleading to keep their pay rate.

It was sad to see.

Like many people, we guessed Northumberland County’s elected officials were doing a pretty good job of clerking the courts, recording the deeds or being a sheriff, treasurer or coroner.

In our dealings with these folks and members of their staffs, they seem mainly forthright and professional — responsive, able to put their hands on information and to give good guidance and useful insight.

Yet, in the run-up to the decision to slash official salaries by nearly half, there was a certain amount of backbiting chatter about how many hours certain officials actually appear to be on the job and who permits his or her office staff to work half days or attend to personal business on county time.

There was carping about how elected officials win an office, embed an able and experienced clerk to run the place and then the elected official drifts in and out of the job to suit their personal whims and wishes.

Elected administrative offices in county government are common throughout most states.

They are called row offices because on an organization chart they all appear to be equal, aligned horizontally on one row below the county executive officers. That, plus the fact that in many historic courthouses, these offices line up in a row on both sides of a long hallway.

A common thread to all of them is that the chief administrator has the voters to thank for his or her job security.

The executive branch — county commissioners in all our counties — may squeeze the budgets and criticize the office holder, but row officers, as independent elected officials with their own voter base, have to swallow only so much guff before they bark back.

In some counties, the top vote getter is not a county commissioner, but rather one of the row officers, who spend more time politicking throughout the year.

In Monroe County years ago, the county commissioners knew not to mess with the sheriff or the treasurer, both of whom outpolled the top of the ticket in every election.

That is not necessarily the case in Northumberland County.

Northumberland County’s commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy voted last week to cut elected officials’ pay nearly in half, they said, to save taxpayers money.

In the context of the county budget, however, the savings barely top 1 percent, which hardly seems worth the potential downside risk of destabilizing government departments across the board.

Maybe there is more to it than meets the eye.

Northumberland County’s row officers appear to be an uncommonly reticent group.

Usually, people elected to office have a gregarious and loquacious streak, even between election campaigns.

They like keeping in touch with the public, providing regular reports of the services and progress of their office and are often proactive in spotlighting their own accomplishments — real and exaggerated.

Even the row officers, whose duties are more functionary than policy making or direction setting, will occasionally issue a report about the sale of hunting or fishing licenses, revenue collections, property assessments, tax relief programs or innovative techniques that save money or increase efficiency.

Being a public official, almost by definition, means having something to say every now and then to the people who hired you. Why this approach to public communication is not regarded as an opportunity or a responsibility among Northumberland County’s row officers is something of a mystery.

Riding the party ticket and remaining below the radar long enough to draw a pension has never been an especially admirable career arc, even in the lower ranks.

Among independently elected office holders with leadership responsibilities, a low public profile is virtually self-defeating.

There may be a lesson here for other officials throughout the Valley.

In public office, performing public service and showing the boss what a good job you are doing means sharing your accomplishments, openly and often, so that you have allies whenever someone comes along who has other uses for your paycheck.