Voters yesterday overwhelmingly approved a sweeping overhaul of Allegheny County government that will merge and replace six of 10 elected row offices with appointed positions.
Row Office Referendum
(Vote yes or no) 95%
The changes, which will be phased in over the next three years, represent the broadest county government transformation since voters adopted a home rule charter in 1998.
The row offices, an element of local county government in Pennsylvania since the 19th century, have survived repeated consolidation attempts in the past. Yesterday's results, supporters hope, could signal that county residents are ready to consider larger government consolidations, including the possibility of a city-county merger.
"This sends a huge message," said Barbara McNees, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Committee for Row Office Reform, a well-funded coalition of business and political leaders that backed the change. "The citizens are saying, 'We want less government, more efficient government.' They're saying, 'We're ready for the next step.' "
Yesterday also represented a significant victory for county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, who promised to support merging row offices as a candidate and pushed last year to get the referendum on the ballot.
"I'm excited that the voters endorsed change," Onorato said. "It builds momentum for the future. We're really moving the entire county in the right direction."
Now that the referendum has been approved, the elected register of wills, prothonotary, clerk of courts and jury commissioner will be merged into one appointed office, a director of court records. The elected coroner will be replaced by an appointed medical examiner and the elected recorder of deeds will be replaced by an appointed real estate manager.
The chief executive and county manager will make appointments to the new positions.
Four other elected row offices -- treasurer, district attorney, sheriff and controller -- will not be affected.
All current row officers will finish their terms, meaning Jury Commissioners Jean Milko and Allan Kirschman and Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht will serve until the end of the year, and Register of Wills Eileen Wagner, Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts, Prothonotary Michael Lamb, who lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor, and Clerk of Courts George Matta will serve through 2007.
Last month, county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty estimated the mergers would save the county $773,000 a year. Onorato hopes to keep transition costs down and boost those savings to more than $1 million.
But Roberts, the recorder of deeds, said she isn't convinced the government reorganization will save any money. She also argued the referendum's supporters were dishonest about their intentions.
"Their ultimate goal is a city-county merger," she said. "Why not just put it on the ballot?"
Roberts and Matta, the clerk of courts, headed the main opposition group, Citizens for Good Government. But they did not report raising any funds and led a low-key campaign.
The referendum also appeared to do well in the Mon Valley, Matta's home base and a part of the county that has gone against far-reaching government restructuring in the past, including 1998 home rule charter vote.
During that campaign season, opponents of the home rule charter waged a sustained battle to block its approval. The charter narrowly passed by a few hundred votes, doing away with the three-commissioner system and replacing it with a strong chief executive and a County Council.
At the time, the architects of the new government declined to put row office consolidation on the ballot.
"A decision was made that it would be difficult politically to get it passed if the row officers were lock stock in opposition," said Brian Jensen, a project manager for the Pennsylvania Economy League.
Row offices in Pennsylvania date to the 1830s, the era of Jacksonian democracy, when white male citizens were calling for more electoral rights across the United States.
"That was the reformist message in those days," Jensen said. "Now we're going back the other way."
Early row offices even included an elected surveyor.
The progressive movement of the early 20th century, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, targeted government corruption, and locally, progressives wanted to reduce elected offices that dealt with collecting records, not forming policy.
Critics have long described the offices as Democratic patronage posts. Today, all 10 elected row offices are held by Democrats.
While on a visit to Pittsburgh more than 50 years ago, President Harry S. Truman famously quipped: "What the hell is a prothonotary?" Before that, several statewide commissions had proposed amending the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow counties to do away with their row offices.
In 1968, the first constitutional convention in nearly a century gave voters the opportunity to adopt local home rule governments. But Allegheny County voters turned down two charter proposals in the 1970s. Both included some form of row office consolidation.
After the home rule charter took effect in 2000, state law called for a five-year waiting period before another substantial change.
Last year, Onorato proposed doing away with eight offices, including the treasurer's and sheriff's. In December, the Democratic-controlled County Council approved a ballot question that would preserve those two offices, prompting one Republican to call the measure "reform lite."
But McNees argued yesterday that other changes could come in the near future. She recommended organizing a countywide commission to look at new government structures.
"Then we could make recommendations to the state Legislature about where we want to go," she said.
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1183.