Responsible only to voters who hardly know of them, Philadelphia's city commissioners, sheriff, and register of wills are up for election Tuesday. These so-called row offices, which turn legitimate government functions into backward political jobs programs, are best understood as continuous campaigns for their own elimination.
The three-member City Commission oversees elections, but its Democratic chairman, Anthony Clark, doesn't vote - or work - much. The other Democrat on the ballot, Lisa M. Deeley, is the party's choice to replace Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who failed to gather enough signatures to run in the primary. Republican Al Schmidt, who is guaranteed the minority-party seat alongside the two Democrats, was elected as a reformer and has tried to professionalize the office, though he took power by engineering Clark's low-show chairmanship. The agency is one of a handful of its kind still run by elected officials at a time when most of the work is technical - and when the sponsorship of party bosses shouldn't be the chief qualification.
Democratic Sheriff Jewell Williams is a former state legislator who sports a uniform fit for the dictator of a small, misgoverned nation. He came into office promising to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, which included criminal prosecutions. Instead, he sent letters to employees asking them to contribute to his campaign. His Republican opponent, Christopher Sawyer, has deep knowledge of land use and proposes to employ the office's power over land sales to reduce blight. That's a fine idea, but the sheriff should be taken out of the land business entirely. The city's Land Bank is better suited to effect a smart land management strategy.
The Democratic register of wills, Ron Donatucci, is a self-proclaimed, shameless purveyor of patronage. His Republican opponent, Ross Feinberg, has the right idea: He says the office should be folded into the court system.
The functions of these agencies matter enough to be put them beyond the whims of politicians. The next mayor and City Council should bring them into this century with professional management.