Qualifications not needed for many row offices in Pennsylvania
The county treasurer voters elect next week might not have an accounting degree.
Those chosen to manage thousands of deeds and wills likely won’t have formal training in records management.
Thank a patronage-laced political system centuries ago and the ensuing distrust in government for having voters elect leaders for many local offices.
“We’ve made more and more state and local officials elected over time,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University School of Law professor. “Pennsylvania is unusual in this regard. We take it to the extreme.”
Ledewitz attributes the shift from appointment to election of row offices to a national trend that aimed to rid government of patronage and nepotism, and avoid corruption by letting voters elect many county and state posts.
Pennsylvania, in particular, had a penchant for making more executive branch officials elected posts, where their federal counterparts are appointed, he said.
While citizens had confidence in political appointments in the 1790s, that faith deteriorated during the next 50 years, he said.
Changes were prompted, in part, by Thaddeus Stevens, a Pennsylvania congressman and leader in the so-called Radical Republican Party, who openly padded the public payroll with patronage appointments to build a stronger party organization, according to historical notes given to delegates who wrote the state’s most recent constitution in 1968.
In each constitutional revision during the 19th century, delegates added more elected offices, records show.
“And we’ve never gone back,” Ledewitz said.
There are no professional qualifications needed for most county offices. The coroner, for example, who investigates the cause and manner of deaths, does not have to be medically trained.
For offices such as recorder of deeds and register of wills that process thousands of pages of vital documents, “you want somebody who understands (information technology) and has some knowledge of the law, someone who’s a good administrator and well-organized,” said Jim Roddey, former Allegheny County executive and the chairman of that county’s Republican Party.
“You don’t always get that when you have open elections,” Roddey said.
Allegheny County adopted a home rule charter in 1998 that replaced commissioners with a county council and an executive.
Under home rule, counties can change the structure of their government and eliminate elected positions that otherwise are spelled out in state law. Allegheny County no longer elects a register of wills, recorder of deeds, clerk of courts, prothonotary or coroner.
Those jobs are filled through the human resources process like any other county job, Roddey said.
“It takes the politics out of those offices,” Roddey said. “None of them really have a political function — they’re all administrative positions. There’s no reason they should continue to be elected.”
Former Westmoreland County commissioners discussed home rule in the past, but the issue was never formally studied and no proposals appeared on a ballot here.
“There has always been a conversation about consolidating row officers. Politics has usually stopped that from happening,” said Rob Ritson, former chief of staff to then-commissioner Tom Balya, a Democrat. Ritson now works as chief of staff to Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield.
Ritson said the party in the minority usually drums up the conversation while the majority party wants to protect those jobs.
“Commissioners didn’t hesitate, when given the ability, to eliminate (the position of) jury commissioner,” Ritson said. “You can see that given some type of other opportunity, they more than likely would take a serious look at” consolidating row offices.
Some Westmoreland County row officers defend their elected jobs.
Treasurer Jared Squires, a Republican, said his education — bachelor’s degrees in accounting and physics and a master’s in nuclear engineering — plus “an analytical mind” and experience running a small business make him qualified for the position.
He said it’s important to elect a treasurer because of the county boards he serves on, such as the retirement board, which meets with investment managers regarding the county pension funds. Being independently elected ensures commissioners don’t hold all the power on the board, he said.
“Because I serve on those boards, I would never question the need for the treasurer to be an elected position,” said Squires, who’s running for re-election against Democratic challenger John Nestor, a Monessen city councilman.
Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].