We noted a couple of times last week the unsavory response of Philly's political community to the question of eliminating the Sheriff's Office: Basically they said, it's not going to happen, so stop thinking about it. Today the Daily News weighs in on the issue, with an editorial that's worth quoting in full:
Here's a tale of two cities: The first city, where most of us live, is still a democracy, subject to the changes its people deem necessary; lately, those changes include thinking smarter about how we spend our scarcer public resources. The second city is a smaller one, run by The Party, which makes the decisions for us; taxpayers exist only to fund as many jobs as possible for Party members.
And for spokesperson for this politbburo, we nominate Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who explained that the retirement of Sheriff John Green will not be an occasion to consider eliminating the job, as many wise people have called for. No, she explained, The Party has already annointed Jewell Williams to become the next sheriff and "it's a consensus that everyone in the party has agreed to. It's kind of a done deal."
Welcome to Party City. Check your democracy at the door.
Green's term ends in 2012, but he'll be stepping down early. This should be a well-timed opportunity to consider whether keeping the post can be justified. The sheriff's office is one of many - with the focus on so-called "row offices" - whose relevance has been called into question by financial and ethical watchdogs (and this editorial board). The office currently has a budget of $12 million; last year, it blew its budget by $2 million in extra overtime costs. And that was the good news: A 2008 audit by the city controller found the sheriff's financial and oversight operations to be exposed to a high risk of fraud and abuse, with weak internal controls; it gave out contracts without required bidding procedures; it didn't disburse proceeds from sheriff's sales on a timely basis; it opened unauthorized bank accounts and operated with other disturbing irregularities.
These kinds of problems are no problem if a department has no reason to justify its existence. That is, if it's protected by The Party it can do what it pleases, including mismanaging taxpayer money. But it's not just the performance of a single sheriff that should cause us to pause and reconsider: The duties of the office, which includes transporting prisoners to and from the courts, conducting sheriff's sales of properties, and serving writs and warrants could be reassigned to other departments, saving taxpayer money.
The city has the authority to eliminate the position (subject to a referendum vote). That would require Council action. But since City Council often confuses itself with the headquarters of Party City, it will take a courageous move by a Council member who lives in the same city the rest of us do. Show of hands?
We won't hold our breath waiting for a Council member to come forward and say he or she plans to lead the charge to eliminate (or even just consider reorganizing) the Sheriff's Office. But if you do happen to be a Council member who is planning to do these things, let us know -- we'll shout it from the rafters!