New Castle News

Closer Look

May 14, 2014

Our Opinion: Ending election of clerks would be step in right direction

NEW CASTLE — Being longtime advocates of county government reform, we are intrigued by a legislative proposal in Harrisburg.

According to CNHI’s Harrisburg bureau, the measure would end elections for county clerks of courts and prothonotaries. Instead, these posts would become appointed and operate within the county court system.

From a logistical standpoint, that makes perfect sense. These offices basically maintain court and related legal records. Thus they serve as extensions of the court system and operate as the courts direct.

Yet in most Pennsylvania counties, including Lawrence, the positions are elected. Why? The answer mainly involves 19th century patronage politics and subsequent inertia.

There is absolutely no reason to have these positions filled by voters. These office holders do not make public policy. Rather, they act as directed by the courts.

This is one of several points we have raised in the past regarding the inefficient structure of county government. It’s a system that defies common sense. The structure exists nowhere else in either the public or private sectors, with different row offices determined by voters.

And in many instances, row officers have little or no role in the making of public policy — typically a key factor in deciding whether or not a position is an elected one.

Practically speaking, the typical voter has absolutely no way of measuring the performance of a clerk of courts or prothonotary. The tasks are performed behind the scenes with little in the way of public scrutiny.

The CNHI report noted that several such offices around the state have had fiscal scandals attached to them. Transferring the offices to the courts may not completely eliminate such problems, but it should lead to improved oversight.

The proposal to end the elections of prothonotaries and clerks of courts follows closely on the heels of a similar move in Harrisburg that allowed counties to eliminate the elected position of jury commissioners. So while it seems that wholesale reform of county government is going nowhere, the Legislature is chipping away at it in bits and pieces.

If that’s the case, lawmakers still have a long way to go. We remain baffled by the fact Pennsylvania has elected coroners and county treasurers, for example.

And it’s not just us. We note the Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association has said it is in favor of ending the election of court clerks. Now, if we can just get that group to begin questioning a system that has three commissioners acting as both the legislative and executive branches in county government, some real reforms may be in the offing.

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