Allegheny County official opposes paying Election Day constables

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Let's face it: With voter participation being what it is, the biggest challenge for poll workers on Election Day might be staying awake.

That's why one Allegheny County councilwoman is questioning the $80,000 the county spends every election on part-time constables to "keep the peace" at polling locations, a patronage job that has little to do with actual police work.

At last week's Allegheny County Board of Elections meeting, Councilwoman Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, challenged the $95-a-day position, saying it's become a glorified hall monitor in an age when real police officers are only a cell phone call away.

"It's always been a pet peeve," she said. "I don't think it's useful, and I think it's a waste of taxpayers' dollars. Whenever you do that, you're trading it off against something that could be more useful."

State law requires a municipal constable or an appointed deputy to monitor polling locations "for the purpose of preserving the peace." Most towns already have a constable or two who serve papers for the district courts, but the ranks temporarily swell to more than 1,000 on Election Day.

They're a civilian replacement for police officers, who aren't allowed to patrol within 100 feet of a poll place. But Ms. Danko says nothing prohibits officers from intervening if a crime is committed, according to her reading of county policy. And as the former chair of the 14th Ward, she contends the crime-fighting capability of your average once-a-year constable leaves something to be desired.

Call it what it is, she said: a chance for local committee officials, who help pick constables, to give their friends a few bucks.

"I would get a call routinely before every primary if I had people I wanted to be constables," she said of her time at the 14th Ward. "Fortunately for me, I've never had a lot of people call me and ask to be constables."

Since the constable requirement comes from the state, there's little Ms. Danko can do on county council to change the law. Though she's fine with flouting this particular state regulation -- Who's going to call the county on it? she asked -- she understands that lobbying Harrisburg is probably the safer route.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who sits on the board of elections, said he'll add it to the list of things to bring up on his next trip to the state Capitol.

"It's almost one of these unfunded mandates," he said. "The state tells counties what to do, but the counties have to figure out how to pay for it."

A group of state senators, including Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Lawrenceville, brought up the issue two years ago, submitting legislation to make the constable requirement optional for counties. It never made it to the Senate floor.

Naturally, constables have something to say about this. Emil Minnar, a former constable and executive director of the Pennsylvania State Constables Association, said his colleagues play a vital role in maintaining order at polling places, which can get chaotic at peak hours.

"I've seen fights in the polls, pushing and shoving, you name it," he said. "Some people are just radical. The point of the matter is, it could happen."

And former constable Kenneth Krebs of McKees Rocks can testify to that. A full-time elected constable for 36 years, he had to break up a few arguments in his day.

But the 69-year-old acknowledges that getting an Election Day gig is all about connections. Indeed, now that he's retired, he's found he doesn't have the political pull to land a day in his former chair at the polls.

He's resigned himself to getting in line with the rest of us.

"It's politics -- that's just what it is," he said. "They want to do a favor for somebody and put a couple bucks in their pocket."

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Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


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