The Sentinel’s profile of the county row offices last weekend deserves credit for putting a spotlight on the antiquated, expensive county government structure we have in Pennsylvania and addressing the question, “Is this working the way it should?” It is well past time to ask the question.
The functions conducted by the row offices are some of the most visible, and among the most important in county government. The most common contact most citizens have with their county government is in the filing or accessing of public records, such as property deeds and wills, or acquiring certain permits or licenses. Other departments handle court proceedings as part of our criminal justice system, where the county has a major role. No one questions the fact that these offices perform vital functions.
The question of whether these functions are performed best through an elective office is something that demands asking, especially in ongoing tight fiscal times. The structure of Pennsylvania county government needs updating, as every structure eventually does, but any potential improvements will remain mired in politics under current policymakers. If we were starting from a clean slate, it’s clear any reasonable person who cares about efficiency and effectiveness would not introduce a county government its current form for the 21st century. This system costs too much and creates obstacles toward good organizational management. It is the textbook case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” And still, even as bloated and top-heavy as it is, it fails to adequately represent our communities.
We could deliver better services, at less cost, with more accountability if a restructuring were allowed to pare the system into fewer political heads with less turf politics and less administrative duplication.
Pennsylvania government, state and county, needs modernization badly. Businesses restructure to survive as their environment and markets change. State and county government in this state, however, just muddles along, as-is, long after becoming obsolete, relying on endless tax increases to prop it up.
Let’s try a better approach: I see no reason we cannot combine some offices into a combined Office of Public Records and Licensure, and other offices into a single Office of Court Records, possibly headed with non-elected managers, who should cost us less. Some offices, however, should retain an elected department head, such as the controller, who conducts financial oversight of all offices and serves as the watchdog over county spending and financial practices. That individual needs to be independent and exercise impartiality to provide sufficient public accountability. But few other offices have that requirement; they are just an anachronism.
But let’s not stop there: while we are at it, the Board of Commissioners structure needs overhauled, too. Three seats, representing two political parties opens the system up to entirely too much horse trading and deal-making where one vote tips the scale. It is too vulnerable to personal empire-building and partisan politicking. A board of five part-time commissioners, elected from districts, would provide more balance and a voice for each sector of our diverse county – rural, suburban and towns.
Changes to the structure will likely only occur under enactment of a Home Rule charter, but that option does not have the support of the current commissioners, despite the recommendation from the county’s budget recovery consultants (Public Financial Management) that it receive serious consideration.
Party officials will tell you that elected status ensures greater accountability, but honestly, how many people can cite the names, much less the voting records, of the commissioners, much less the elected department heads? The “greater accountability” line is a red herring, a self-serving myth of convenience. Virtually no one knows the prothonotary’s record, or the register of wills’ record well enough to make an informed vote.
The fact is, these positions largely continue to exist in this form for purely political reasons and both parties protect the status quo, almost uniformly across the state, often without regard to which party currently holds control. Until good management practice prevails over political protectionism, there isn’t likely to be any serious improvement in addressing the growing cost and lessening effectiveness of county government.
Gary Eichelberger is a Cumberland County commissioner.