WHAT'S the biggest problem with the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office? Is it the history of shoddy accounting and millions in missing public funds uncovered by a recent audit? Or is it that the office is redundant and shouldn't even be an elected position?

If you attended the sheriff's departmental budget hearing at City Council yesterday, you might get the impression that the real problem is that Council can't find enough ways to express its love for the office.

At the hearing, three Council members - Curtis Jones, Jannie Blackwell and James Kenney - passionately defended the right of the Sheriff's Office to remain independently elected. Kenney even slammed the Committee of Seventy, a reform group that has called for consolidating the functions of Sheriff's Office into other departments.

Council's concern about preserving the political nature of the office was not matched by an equally robust discussion of the sheriff's finances, including missing financial records, incorrect bank statements and questionable no-bid contracts. And no one thought it was worth asking about the comprehensive financial audit of the Sheriff's Office now under way.

Instead, the hearing mainly consisted of several Council members' lavishing praise on acting Sheriff Barbara Deeley, who worked under former Sheriff John Green for more than 20 years. She did not face a single question about whether she played any role in the alleged financial mismanagement that has plagued the office. Council wrapped up the hearing in less than 45 minutes.

We can have a legitimate debate about eliminating the Sheriff's Office. But Council should also be showing more concern about protecting the interests of taxpayers, not just the narrow interests of the political class that controls the minor elected offices.