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Why are administrative jobs like clerk of courts mostly elected offices in Pa.?

The clerk of courts office in the Dauphin County Courthouse. (Sean Simmers / pennlive.com/TNS)
The clerk of courts office in the Dauphin County Courthouse. (Sean Simmers / pennlive.com/TNS)

The has led some residents to wonder aloud why what’s essentially an administrative job like recording and archiving court records is on election ballots — along with several other county government cousins — every four years.

Six words really explain it: We’ve always done it this way.

Many 21st-century county offices date to Colonial times, when the establishment of basic society-building functions like courts, the construction of roads, or the recording of real estate transactions and land ownership really couldn’t just be taken for granted.

Some offices, like the weighers of bread and poundkeepers — those charged with the feeding and care of stray livestock — have been phased out over time.

But the current slate of county row offices was delineated as elective offices in and that’s pretty much been the rule of the road ever since.

The only exceptions, and there are eight among the state’s 67 counties, are in those counties where officials and voters have by referendum adopted home rule charters that have allowed them to create their own road maps for operations.

There have been other intermittent calls for broader reforms of the county government structure, but they have largely gathered dust on bookshelves because of the heavy load required in getting amendments to the state Constitution approved.

Dave Green, chair of the state’s Local Government Commission, said home rule has been the “pressure release valve” for those counties that have been most interested in developing a better way.

Status quo breaks down

To be fair, in most cases, the status quo works at least adequately.

But Dauphin County had a notable breakdown this year after the brought in her own team of county Democratic Party leaders in to lead the office, and a number of longtime staffers left.

You can hear conflicting versions about exactly how Whitley built her staff, but in the end she hired Cole Goodman, the vice chair of the Dauphin County Democratic Party Committee, as her first deputy, and the county committee chair, Rogette Harris, as second deputy.

That looked, to outsiders, like to-the-victors-go-the-spoils patronage, though some Democrats are quick to note that Whitley’s staff didn’t exactly get a lot of help.

Patti Sites, who had been serving as acting clerk for the last two years, moved to the county treasurer’s office, and several other veteran members of the clerk’s staff left as well. By late February, according to previous PennLive reports, as many as 10 out of 16 budgeted positions were vacant.

Whitley did not return a request for an interview for this story.

In the ensuing months, routine orders of court business became not so routine, and eventually Dauphin’s President Judge Scott Evans imposed a set of strict benchmarks for the new staff to hit to deal with errors and a backlog of paperwork.

Last week, with a series of scheduled hearings that could lead to a contempt order staring them in the face, Whitley and Goodman resigned their posts, and Harris was fired.

Sites, a longtime top manager in the clerk of court’s office under the Whitley’s elected predecessors, has returned as acting clerk.

To some, the Dauphin County debacle raises anew the idea of trying to find a better way.

But nothing’s likely to change anytime soon.

The Home Rule process itself takes several years to play out from start to finish, including separate public ballot questions on whether to even launch a home rule study, and then an up-or-down vote on whether a proposed charter should be adopted.

We reached out to the three Dauphin commissioners for this story.

The only commissioner to respond, Justin Douglas, said he’s dedicated his first six months in office understanding the functions and functioning of the actual county government, with little focus on theoretical changes to its structure.

That said, Douglas said Wednesday he is “always willing to consider any options that ensure the government operated efficiently and effectively for the betterment of the community.”

Home rule in Pa.

In Northampton County, a home rule charter was implemented in the 1970s, after a hard-fought debate about whether the county courthouse should move away from a heavy reliance on politically motivated patronage hiring.

The reformers won out, and to this day nearly all of the old row offices in Northampton has been subsumed under the lead of an elected chief executive officer, the county executive.

The executive works with a nine-seat elected county council, not unlike a mayor/council form of government in a city. The only other elected row officers in Northampton are the district attorney and the county controller.

Positions like the clerk of courts still exist, but they are filled through a competitive, career service process.

Lamont McClure, the Northampton County executive, said from his standpoint, Northampton’s system is working well, and there’s never been any serious thought given to going back to the state constitution’s cookie cutter rules.

“Over time, the merit hiring gives you a more expert employee pool to draw from when you’re doing your promotions, because they’re dedicated to learning that particular job. Their primary allegiance is to the work, and ultimately to the citizens. Not to the person who appointed them,” McClure said.

The other home rule counties in Pennsylvania are Allegheny, Delaware, Erie, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne and Philadelphia. The most recent of those was Luzerne, which implemented its charter in 2012 after a series of county government scandals.

Lancaster countians gave it a go about 15 years ago, but a proposed charter there was rejected in 2008.

Arguing for home rule

Home rule hasn’t been seriously considered in Dauphin County for decades.

But, in a stroke of irony, one of the last people to raise the issue publicly in any kind of a sustained way was Harris, who called for a study of a home rule charter for the county while she was running as the Democratic Party nominee for register of wills in 2011.

“This form of government not only gives power back to the people, where it belongs, but it would also result in cost savings through the consolidation of offices and services,” Harris said then, at a mid-campaign news conference. “The time for a leaner, more effective government is here. The status quo in Dauphin County is simply not good enough.”

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