Arguing about electing the Sheriff with Councilman Kenney

A few days ago, Councilman Kenney penned an op-ed in the Inquirer lamenting recent revelations about financial mismanagement at the Sheriff’s office, but objecting to the suggestion – made by It’s Our Money, among others – that the Sheriff’s office should not be an elected office in Philadelphia. “I believe incoming Sheriff Jewel Williams should have the opportunity to clean up the mess left by his predecessor and establish strict procedures, accountability, and efficiency,” he wrote.

Kenney did not say in the op-ed why he believes this. To us, the Sheriff should not be an elected position because we don’t think the city needs an elected official to handle logistical tasks like prisoner transport. It would make just as much sense to elect the Licenses and Inspections Commissioner.

So we called Kenney to ask: Why should the Sheriff’s particular responsibilities be handled by an independently elected official? Here’s a summary of our conversation:

Kenney said that electing an official yields greater accountability than appointing one.

“I think democracy trumps appointment in most cases,” he said.

We said that we don’t think that’s true of elections that no one pays attention to – like elections for the Sheriff of Philadelphia.

Kenney said that this is the electorate’s problem.

“Because the electorate is lazy and not paying attention, we should change the system?”

Advocates who call for the Sheriff’s office to be abolished, he said, would do better to fight for voters to pay attention to more races. 

We said that if you follow that logic, you could argue that we should elect many positions. But voters don’t have the time or inclination to micro-manage government. 

Kenney said that you have to draw the line somewhere. One of his considerations is, “if it’s an elected position, it should stay an elected position.”

Kenney made a couple of other points – for instance that there would have been far fewer African American officials in Philadelphia over the year if positions like judge and Sheriff were appointed – but we think this is the crux of our disagreement.

We think the primary consideration in determining whether an office should be elected or appointed (besides Council and the mayor, which are the crux of city democracy) is whether it requires independence to make policy decisions. The District Attorney comes to mind – there are reasons to worry about the city’s chief prosecutor being beholden to the mayor. 

There are other factors, but for us, history doesn’t rank very high on the list. Kenney disagrees. Your thoughts?

Follow us on Twitter and review city services on our sister site, City Howl.