Sheriff facing primary showdown

In a normally low-profile row-office race, incumbent John Green faces a challenge from Michael Untermeyer.

They're the sort of elected offices that many Philadelphia voters don't know exist until election day: clerk of quarter sessions, city commissioner, register of wills, and sheriff.

The campaigns for these little-known posts, held mostly by long-entrenched Democrats, have been predictably quiet and tame this year, with one glaring exception.

Sheriff John Green is facing a furious challenge in the May 15 Democratic primary from a lawyer and real estate developer, Michael Untermeyer.

In radio spots and on the stump, Untermeyer is sharply critical of the 19-year incumbent, whose tenure has been marked by sharp criticism from outside auditors. Untermeyer says Green's office is in a "state of chaos" and claims it is being "run to serve the friends of the sheriff."

Untermeyer draws his ammunition from news reports and highly critical City Controller's Office audits of the Sheriff's Office from fiscal years 2001 to 2004, which found that the office was inappropriately mixing funds and illegally holding millions of dollars that should have been transferred to the state.

Green's campaign has hit back with ads defending his record and accusing Untermeyer of dirty tactics.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Green acknowledged his office had made "mistakes," but he said that the accounting system had been overhauled and that the state had been paid the money it was owed.

And he quickly pointed to the fact that City Controller Alan Butkovitz and former Controller Jonathan Saidel have both endorsed Green's reelection. (Both, like Green, are Democrats.) Saidel was controller when the Sheriff's Office was audited.

"They're satisfied with the progress we've made," Green said. He is also endorsed by District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham.

The challenger, Untermeyer, dismissed those endorsements.

"I don't think the office is cleaned up. We live in a city that's a very political place," said Untermeyer, adding that he was "surprised and disappointed" that Saidel was backing Green.

Yesterday, Saidel acknowledged that as controller he had criticized Green's management of the office. But he said Green had assured him that the recommended changes had been made.

"I always give people the benefit of the doubt," Saidel said in an interview.

The Sheriff's Office transports prisoners and provides courtroom security, but its biggest job is managing foreclosure and tax sales. It has an annual budget of about $12 million and 263 employees. Like all elected row officers, the sheriff is paid $102,000 a year.

In nearly two decades on the job, Green said, he has vastly improved the office's foreclosure education programs, informing residents of how to prevent their homes from being sold at auction. He also touted his office's record on courtroom safety.

While Untermeyer's critiques begin with Green's financial management of the office, they don't stop there. He said the sheriff had chosen to do the bare minimum, while sheriffs elsewhere take on added duties, such as processing drunken-driving offenders or putting deputies out on patrol to help an overwhelmed police force.

"I don't have any false aspirations: You're not going to change the world from this office," Untermeyer said. "But you can improve it, even if it's just . . . nine or 10 extra officers on the street."

Green has big advantages as a long-term incumbent in a low-profile race. For his part, Untermeyer has 15 years' experience in such government positions as deputy state attorney general and Philadelphia assistant district attorney.

Untermeyer also has money. He gave $100,000 to his own campaign - a hefty sum in a sheriff's race. Untermeyer had raised $50,000 more by the end of 2006, according to his latest campaign report - but $35,000 of it was in two big donations that exceeded the city's new campaign-finance caps. Untermeyer returned those.

Green's campaign had about $40,000 on hand by Dec. 31. But he, too, accepted a check (for $23,500, from the Laborers District Council's political fund) that exceeded the city's caps. Green said yesterday that his campaign was returning the check.

Both Green and Untermeyer said they had initially accepted the large checks believing that the campaign caps had not yet taken effect.

There is no Republican candidate.

In other row-office races, the three officials who run elections - the city commissioners - face challenges.

Incumbent Democrats Margaret M. Tartaglione and Edgar Howard are being challenged by Anthony Clark and B. Blair Talmadge. The lone Republican commissioner, Joseph J. Duda, is running against Patrick J. Carroll. The City Charter allocates one commissioner position to the minority party.

(Because the commissioners are on the ballot this year, they cede control of elections to a temporary panel of three judges.)

The clerk of quarter sessions, Vivian T. Miller, a Democrat, is being challenged by ward leader and auditor Elaine Tomlin. This elected clerk's post oversees the office that handles administrative affairs of the municipal courts. Long-shot Republican candidate John Featherman will meet the Democratic winner in the general election.

The register of wills, Ronald R. Donatucci, who has overseen the $3.5 million office for 27 years, does not have a primary challenger.

Republican Dan Salvatore will try to unseat him in November.


Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2827 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.