Elmer Smith: Adieu by clerk of quarter sessions is opening act in an era's end

QUOTING from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Vivian Miller called her resignation as clerk of quarter sessions her "time to dance."

And so it was.

Mayor Nutter danced around the subject that reporters showed up to discuss: Will he move to shut down the Clerk of Quarter Sessions operation altogether?

"I think, out of respect," the mayor said, "what I'd like to do today is recognize the service."

Then, demonstrating his own firm grasp of Ecclesiastes, the mayor said there would be "a time to get into all of those particulars in the future."

Common Pleas President Judge Pamela Dembe moonwalked back in time to 1991, when Miller was elected as the first black woman to ever hold the post.

"She's going to be remembered as a real pioneer," Dembe said, "a real trailblazer for women and African-Americans."

The whole thing was done with the dignity that she does deserve. She left on her own terms. Because she is an elected official, neither the mayor nor anyone else could force her out of office.

But mounting pressure on the mayor to abolish the office and distribute its work and the 110 workers who do it to other offices was making the position untenable for her and for him.

If I can be allowed one last Old Testament analogy, she saw the writing on the wall.

Miller said that her career "has run its course. "This is my time to dance. I go in peace, love and harmony."

History may mark this as the end of peace, love and harmony for the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. The office is a rusting relic of an era when dozens of clerks in eyeshades manually recorded criminal-court proceedings and rulings.

Much of that work could be automated and done more efficiently by other court offices. Miller's office came under scrutiny in a recent Inquirer series that reported that the city was owed $1 billion in forfeitures by fugitives who skipped bail. Last week, the Daily News reported that a man sentenced to jail for homicide by vehicle was released a year early because of a clerical error in Miller's office.

Miller can't be blamed for the forfeitures. But she has taken heat because her office allegedly has not kept accurate records of who owes bail money. How much of that is her fault is an open question.

"We regret it," City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said of Miller's resignation. "We in City Council feel she didn't have the tools she needed."

Her supporters and detractors could have debated that until her term ended in January 2012. But her voluntary retirement will spare the mayor that debate at a time when he's forced to shake the sofa cushions for change.

What little may be saved by closing her $4.6 million operation wouldn't cover much of the city's $150 million budget deficit. But as a first step in the possible elimination of all four city row offices, it could lead to significant savings.

The city's state-appointed fiscal overseer, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, estimates that the city could save up to $15 million by closing the offices of the register of wills, the sheriff and the city commissioners. Closing those offices would require charter changes or state approval.

But the mayor and Council could wipe out the Clerk of Quarter Sessions office with the stroke of a pen.

Zachary Stalberg, head of the Committee of Seventy, which has called for closing the row offices, wasn't encouraged by the absence of Council members at Miller's wake yesterday.

"I think if he can get the votes in City Council," Stalberg said, "[Nutter] will try to shut it down."

District Attorney Seth Williams speculated that the mayor will push to close the Clerk of Quarter Sessions office.

"Yes, I think he will," Williams said. "We don't need to have duplicative services."

So, there is a time to build and a time to destroy that which has been built up.

Vivian Miller seems like a woman who understands the times.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith