County officials across Pennsylvania were sworn in on Tuesday, January 2nd. Most Pennsylvanians pay little attention to this formality or county government in general. Of the four levels of government that impact Pennsylvanians — which also includes municipal, state, and federal government —county government receives the least attention. Consequently, few realize the current county government system is byzantine, cumbersome, inefficient, and in desperate need of reform.

Pennsylvania’s 67 counties operate under a similar set of Commonwealth laws that dictate the number of elected officials and operation of county government, except for those that adopted a home rule charter, like Allegheny and Luzerne Counties. While most residents might envision three elected commissioners when considering county government, there are also several other elected officials, known as row officers. These include the treasurer, sheriff, controller or three auditors (depending on a county’s size), district attorney, prothonotary, coroner, clerk of courts, register of wills, clerk of orphan’s court, and recorder of deeds. In smaller counties, these last four row offices are often consolidated into other elected positions. However, the functions of these positions remain the responsibility of county government.

Two issues should be immediately apparent. First, what responsibilities do these row offices carry out? Few Pennsylvanians know or give these elected positions much thought. As a result, political operators, sometimes with little administrative experience, get elected to these technical, theoretically apolitical positions. 

It’s a formula for poor governance. 

Next: given this dense web of elected officials, who is responsible for what?

This question is the source of most dysfunction in county government. County commissioners act as a quasi-legislative branch while also operating as joint county executives. This is akin to the federal government being run by three elected presidents who form both the legislative and executive branch, while federal departments, such as the Treasury Department and Department of Defense, are run by independently elected officials.

Ben Kafferlin, the outgoing two-term commissioner of Warren County and leader of management consulting firm Kafferlin Strategies, was asked to share his experience with the structure of county government. Mr. Kafferlin noted Pennsylvania’s system predates the American Revolution. As such, the system features a familiar separation of powers but lacks a clear outlining of authority. He noted “the existing structure of county government in Pennsylvania is marked by a lack of clear delineation in responsibilities, leading to inherent inefficiencies and frustrations.”

Commenting on the role of commissioners, Mr. Kafferlin stated “county commissioners hold a blend of legislative and executive authority, with occasional, limited judicial-like powers in areas such as zoning and elections.” This results in “the dilution of executive power, which ideally should be concentrated and cohesive. Conversely, a legislative body should encompass diverse perspectives, extending beyond just three individuals to avoid conflicts like those arising from the Sunshine Act,” which is a state law that requires elected officials to make public their decision-making in certain circumstances. 

The existing structure means commissioners are often held responsible for the actions of row offices while exercising limited authority over them. 

“This system, where row offices are accountable to voters,” according to Mr. Kafferlin, “translates to a form of accountability that is more theoretical than practical. Commissioners, often blamed for the actions or inactions of row offices, possess limited authority.” One of the only forms of official authority commissioners exercise over the rest of county government is referred to as the “nuclear option,” which is the politically unpopular and heavy-handed approach of defunding a row office or other segment of county government.

To further complicate the matter, aspects of Pennsylvania’s judicial branch are intertwined with county government. 

Stephanie Fera, a managing partner at Gabriel Fera, P.C., a law firm that specializes in labor, employment, and municipal law, echoed Mr. Kafferlin’s observations. Ms. Fera, who serves as solicitor for three Pennsylvania counties and labor and employment counsel for many others throughout the Commonwealth, noted that county commissioners “manage and control the budget for all county offices, approve all contracts, and manage the majority of county employees and departments. However, counties are unique in that there are also independently elected row officers and judges who each retain authority over their office management and personnel. In essence, especially when it comes to the courts and employees who work for the county judges, this creates a divide in authority, which can be difficult to manage. Because the judge and row officers retain the exclusive right to hire, fire, and supervise their staff, while the commissioners retain control over the budgets in the offices of those other elected officials, there can be conflict between them.”

Ms. Fera notes how this intricate relationship is particularly acute for employees of the court. “The employment status for employees who work for the Court of Common Pleas is more complicated because those employees are considered court employees and they work directly for the court, even though they are paid for by the counties and receive county benefits. The court is generally considered their employer, but that line can be blurred depending on the circumstances.” For instance, some judges “will allow the commissioners and their staff to handle human resources issues, which can create a joint-employer relationship.”

The current system is a bottomless well of complexity. The competing divides in authority between commissioners, row officers, and courts result in considerable energy being spent on managing these relationships. Meanwhile, reform is nearly impossible since it requires the political buy-in of multiple officials. Pennsylvanians do not know who to hold responsible for bad governance at the county level since elected and court officials alike can blame one another to evade responsibility. The system needs to be overhauled.

When asked what alternative systems may work for county governments, Mr. Kafflin said, “To me, a preferable model might be one akin to boroughs, where a council appoints a manager, or similar to some home rule counties, which have a county executive and a legislative council. Such structures offer the advantage of a clear separation of power and a system of checks and balances.” This alternative approach “could involve appointing row officers by a county executive and confirmed be the legislative body, similar to departmental secretaries being appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate.”

As new and reelected county officials take up their positions this month, ask yourself, “Exactly who is responsible for what?” Chances are those officials don’t know the answer themselves.

Seth Higgins, a native of Saint Marys, Pennsylvania, specializes in bringing conservative thought to local government. Seth is a former Tablet Magazine Fellow and is currently a Krauthammer Fellow with The Tikvah Fund.

3 thoughts on “Seth Higgins: Pennsylvania’s Byzantine system of county government”

  1. As long as we are looking at the byzantine nature of county government, we should also consider the role of an even more local government: first- and second-class townships. Looking at the functions of townships, they mostly mirror county government with the exception road ploughing and maintenance, establishment and maintenance of a local police force. To my mind, it would seem better to have elected county commissioners, an elected sheriff and an elected judiciary. We have this now, except the roles and functions of county commissioners, vs sheriff, vs court system are often opaque. I would like to see a statewide codification of county roles and responsibilities and establishment of a county-wide law enforcement function under an elected sheriff.

  2. “[The current structure] creates a divide in authority, which can be difficult to manage. Because the judge and row officers retain the exclusive right to hire, fire, and supervise their staff, while the commissioners retain control over the budgets in the offices of those other elected officials, there can be conflict between them.”
    PA is less likely to be controlled by a tyranny of the few because of this design. Now we just need to hunt Oligarchs. Are they in season yet?
    Do you remember when Canadian truckers tried to protest recently and the tyranny of the few stopped them? I do. They shut down their bank accounts.
    Do you remember when German rail strikes and German farmers’ protests caused massive disruption in Europe’s biggest economy – just this week – and Broad + Liberty did not report on it?
    The O-Bama-Biden-disabled administration destroyed Germany’s main source of natural gas, Nord Stream, which crippled the German economy. That happened recently. These 51 ‘intelligence’ experts who have refused to apologize for discrediting the true Hunter Biden story are treasonous tyrants.

    1. Restoration of sheriffs to their rightful role would check the tyranny of county officials like those in Delco.

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