|Exec John Brown and PJ Stephen Baratta (right)|
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Brown Abdicates Control Over Understaffed Row Offices
Most Pennsylvania counties elect their row officers, leading to petty fiefdoms in which cronyism runs rampant. Northampton County, when it adopted its Home Rule Charter, transferred those offices to the County Executive, placing them under his control. For the first 25 years or so, that system worked well. For the last ten years, not so much. From time to time, someone suggests transferring the Criminal and Civil Divisions to the courts. Everyone agrees it's a wonderful idea. Nobody does anything. So last year, when President Judge Stephen Baratta personally pitched this idea to Council, nothing happened.
At least not on the surface. But behind the scenes, Executive John Brown has quietly ceded de facto control over these offices. On paper, he is still the man, and he recently reported to Council that he is still in control. But employees are being told to take their problems to the Court Administrator, who is supposed to make sure that these offices are "more in line with the Court's day to day activities."
What are row offices? Historically, they were located in a row next to the courtrooms. They often have strange sounding names like Prothonotary, Clerk of Quarter Sessions and Orphans' Court. Basically, they are where court papers are filed in civil and criminal matters. They are where people go when they get a marriage license, or open an estate for a deceased relative.
In addition to being a repository for court records, these offices serve another important function. Indices and other dockets provide notice to the world of the existence of liens, estates and other matters that have a direct impact on people and their lives.
It makes sense that the courts, and not the Executive, should run these offices.
"With all due respect," Judge Baratta stated last year, "they're [the Brown administration] not involved in what the clerks do." In contrast, the judges are involved in the legal system, and understand the rules as well as the reason for them. Also, the courts take the hit from higher courts when clerks fail to transmit records to appellate courts promptly. So though I am suspicious of giving courts more control than they already have, this is really a good idea.
Part of the problem was created by John Brown's refusal to fill vacancies in the Civil and Criminal Division. These penny wise and pound foolish staffing shortages have led to instances in which the court has actually had to adjourn and sit on its hands while waiting for Civil or Criminal Clerk.
I have supported this change since it was first proposed over ten years ago, by none other than Ron Angle. But I support it being done the right way, not by some end run around the Home Rule Charter.
Here's what the Home Rule Charter (Section 905) says:
(Section 905) "The County Executive shall have the power to organize and reorganize the agencies under his direction and supervision and to assign and reassign their functions, powers and duties by submitting to the County Council a written proposal on the matter. If the County Council fails by resolution to reject or by ordinance to adopt or modify such a written proposal within sixty (60) days after the date of its submission, such written proposal shall have the force and effect of an ordinance amending the Administrative Code."
So at a minimum, Executive Brown should have submitted a written proposal to Council concerning a reorganization of the Criminal and Civil Divisions. He has no authority to cede de facto control over those offices without Council's assent. This transfer to the courts might also require a Home Rule Charter change. That's because our county constitution (Section 1304 (b) (2)) specifically transfers the duties, powers and functions of Clerks of Court, both Criminal and Civil, "to the County Executive or to his subordinate as provided by law." If control over these offices is transferred to the courts, the people need to approve it.
What is happening now is yet another Brown end run around the requirements of the Administrative Code or, in this instance, the Home Rule Charter.
This leads to another very important question. President Judge Baratta, for very good reason, told Council last year that he wanted control over the hiring process. He correctly called the Civil Division "grossly understaffed," and warned that there are problems created by a delay in indexing judgments. He said things are even worse in the Criminal Division.
So once again, it makes perfect sense to give the courts full authority over the staff. But for whom will they be working, the courts or the Executive?
This is no "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" scenario. There are significant differences between working for the Executive and the courts. The biggest is that those who work for the courts are at-will employees. So do row office employees lose their due process rights?
How about their First Amendment rights, too? Judicial employees are barred from core political speech like political contributions, posting yard signs, circulating nomination petitions or becoming members of party committees. Row office workers are specifically permitted to engage in political activity, and I know one row office worker who is a member of her party committee.
These questions need to be answered, and will almost certainly require a change to an existing union contract.
There was a reason the President Judge appeared in front of Council last year. He engaged in a public discussion of a serious situation. John Brown has chosen to respond privately instead of being transparent, as his oath of office requires.
Council needs to insist on that transparency and accountability. This is not a corporate board room, but a local government in which Council must agree to these changes, even if it is only a test situation. If it is permanent, both Council and the people - remember them? - must agree.