Philadelphia may be the Cradle of Liberty, but too much "democracy" these days takes place in a back room.
Witness events after the announcement that city Sheriff John Green plans to step down before the end of his term in January 2012. Before anyone could discuss candidates - or if the office should even continue - it was made clear that the Democratic Party had already anointed a replacement.
State Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.) was chosen by party insiders to take Green's place. As leader of the 16th Ward, Williams is an insider, too. The decision was announced last week at the Democratic Party's headquarters, where party chief and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady holds court.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said Williams was the party's consensus pick: "It's kind of a done deal."
Green, 63, did not say when he plans to officially step down. He has been the sheriff since 1988, and has worked for the city since 1969. Enrolled in the city's lucrative DROP program, Green is eligible to retire in May 2011 and receive a lump-sum payment of $331,744, on top of his yearly pension of $101,568.
The sheriff is one of the city's so-called row offices that reformers and good-government groups have justifiably noted has outlived its usefulness. The office transports prisoners to and from court, conducts sheriff's sales, and serves writs and warrants.
Those are needed services, but there is no need to have an elected official handling them. The duties could be transferred to other departments and the patronage jobs in the sheriff's office eliminated.
Such a move could save taxpayers a chunk of the $12 million now budgeted to run the sheriff's office, plus the additional $2 million spent on overtime last year.
The sheriff's office has long been in need of reform and better management.
A 2008 audit found poor financial oversight and weak internal controls. Issues included contracts awarded without following the proper bidding procedures, numerous unauthorized bank accounts, and other irregularities that call for a real sheriff to investigate and clean up.
Rather than move ahead with a replacement for Green, Mayor Nutter and City Council should be discussing how to disband the office and shift the needed duties. Eliminating the office would require a referendum put before voters. Council would have to authorize such a vote.
All that should be done in public. That's how democracy is supposed to work. Not in the backroom.