Now That Traffic Court Is Gone, Here Are 3 Other Offices That Could Be Abolished
The final demise of Traffic Court, which voters approved in a ballot question last week, appears to have been a cathartic experience for reporters, good government advocates and anyone else who generally prefers competence and honesty to dysfunction and corruption. For a good look at just how bad things got at the court, check out the Inquirer’s obituary from last week.
The wrongdoing at Traffic Court was rampant and egregious. But it’s not the only Philly institution that may have outlived its usefulness. Philadelphia’s row offices might not be as steeped in illegality as Traffic Court, but watchdog groups like the Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority — along with a few former candidates for the offices themselves — say it’s time to get rid of them.
The city commissioners are in charge of overseeing elections, so it was distressing to discover in a 2014 City Paper story that Chairman Anthony Clark hadn’t voted in at least five elections. As we learned over the next year-and-a-half, it wasn’t entirely clear whether Clark shows up to work at all.
Lately there’s been a push to eliminate the elected commissioners altogether and replace them with appointed election officials. Committee of Seventy has endorsed that move, and so has influential former City Councilwoman Marian Tasco. Tasco is an ex-city commissioner, and she says it’s not enough work for three full-time officials. Former City Commissioner Stephanie Singer also called for abolishing the office when she was campaigning in 2011.
Republican Commissioner Al Schmidt has used the office to gather and release important election data. He also supported the reelection of Anthony Clark as chairman of the commissioners earlier this year.
Register of Wills
Ron Donatucci has been the Register of Wills since 1980. Throughout the last three-and-a-half decades, he has freely acknowledged that his office is a patronage mill, supplying jobs for friends, nephews and cousins of the Democratic Party. The Register of Wills not only registers wills, but also collects inheritance taxes and issues marriage licenses. Donatucci has become such an entrenched part of City Hall that he even had his own parking space on the supposed-to-be-public City Hall apron. The City Hall Parking Lot was finally destroyed when Jim Kenney became mayor. Should the Register of Wills be ended too?
Last year, Republican candidate Ross Feinberg said that he would work to abolish the office if he were elected. The responsibilities of the office could be taken over by the court system, Feinberg said, the way the First Judicial District took over the jobs of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions when former Mayor Michael Nutter helped abolish that office in 2010. But Donatucci beat Feinberg and was sworn in for his 10th four-year term in January.
In 2011, John Kromer, a former housing director for the city, campaigned for the sheriff’s office on a platform of abolishing it. He lost, and the sheriff’s office is now under the leadership of Jewell Williams. Despite persistent questions about how the offices manages the auctions of vacant properties, evidence that Williams has used property fees to pay for hoagies from a friendly Northeast Philly deli, and a raid by the FBI, Williams was named Public Servant of the Year by the Public Record, a newspaper friendly to the local Democratic establishment.
Christopher Sawyer, who blogs about property-related intrigues at Philadelinquency, ran as a Republican for sheriff last year, promising to reform the office. He lost, too, and the sheriff’s office remains.
In 2009, before the Clerk of Quarter Sessions was abolished, PICA released a report saying the city could save $15 million a year by getting rid of Philadelphia’s row offices. The same year, the Committee of Seventy noted the city spent more than $1 million a year on salaries and benefits for the elected officials alone.
The Committee of Seventy also recommended, in a 2009 report called “Needless Jobs,” that City Council should sponsor charter amendments to abolish the city commissioners and the sheriff’s office. Those charter amendments would need to be approved by voters. Patrick Christmas, the public policy manager at the Committee of Seventy, noted that getting rid of the Register of Wills would be a bit trickier. That office is mentioned in the state constitution, not the city charter, so it would require a different process to abolish.
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