The May 21 primary promises to be groundbreaking for a number of reasons. The sheer number of candidates for City Council — more than 50 — is notable, as is the number of candidates running for less well-known offices, like commissioner and register of wills. To help voters better understand the functions of some of these offices as well as what is at stake, this special “Primary School “ editorial series will introduce you to the key issues, offices, and players.
This week: Sheriff
On the ballot: Incumbent Jewell Williams (D.), Rochelle Bilal (D.), Malika Rahman (D.), and Larry King Sr (D,). Voters elect one.
Overview: The Sheriff’s Office supports the courts — by transporting prisoners to court, serving writs and warrants, and conducting sheriff’s sales of real estate and other property because of tax delinquencies or foreclosures. Both the good-government group the Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperative Authority (PICA) have argued for its elimination as an elective office (as has this editorial board), pointing out that many cities handle the duties of the current Sheriff’s Office more efficiently, and its court-driven duties could be folded into existing offices for more economy.
A troubled history: Philadelphia has to be getting a cramp in whatever muscle controls eyebrow-raising — given how long the Sheriff’s Office has been the focus of questions about its practices and behaviors. And we’re talking well before this week’s installment in which the Democratic City Committee endorsed and then rescinded its endorsement of Jewell Williams for sheriff. Williams has settled two cases out of court of sexual-harassment claims and a third is working its way through the federal courts.
Williams’ predecessor, John Green, sheriff for 23 years, was the subject of countless probes for how his office handled money and contracts; he beat federal corruption charges, but federal prosecutors are due to retry him on two charges later this month.
Still, if the main argument for eliminating any office was the performance of its officeholder, there would probably be no government.
What’s being measured? Williams issues an annual report that gets splashier every year. In addition to delinquent tax collection ($53 million in 2018) and gains in returning money owed to homeowners who have lost their homes — $3.8 million in 2018, vs. less than half that in 2012 — Williams has started documenting an odd line item: number of sandwiches served to prisoners in the court lockup unit — 96,880 sandwiches were served in 2017, 99,684 in 2018 .
Is that a good measure of the effectiveness of a sheriff’s office, or a wait staff? More troubling is that the sheriff’s budget has doubled in size. According to a Billy Penn report, the $26 million budget is double what it was a decade ago, and has expanded from 242 employees to over 400. Meanwhile, the 2017 annual report saw a drop in number of transported prisoners, citing a decrease in crime and a new state policy that requires less travel by the Sheriff’s Office.