Sheriff John Green told Democratic ward leaders last week that he plans to step down before his term ends in January 2012, handing control of his office to his chief deputy, Barbara Deeley.

Green also told the ward leaders he will support state Rep. Jewell Williams, his former chief of criminal operations, who plans to seek the post in next year's Democratic primary election.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, said Deeley has agreed to finish Green's sixth four-year term and then not run for election next year.

Deeley, who would become the city's first female sheriff, would hold the post as "acting sheriff" until Gov. Rendell formally appoints her, Brady added.

Brady said of Williams, "He would definitely be my choice and be the front-runner [in the 2011 primary]."

Alan Kurtz, a retired Philadelphia Police Department captain who works as a consultant, is also seeking the sheriff's post.

Brady said Green did not say when he will step down.

Green's spokeswoman, Wanda Davis, said he and Deeley had no comment.

Green, a city employee since 1969, has been sheriff since 1988.

Paid $117,991 this year, Green is enrolled in the city's Deferred Retirement Option Program. He would receive a lump-sum payment of $331,744 if he stepped down today and then a pension of $8,464 per month.

The Sheriff's Office - responsible for transporting prisoners, providing security for courtrooms, serving warrants and auctioning real estate to satisfy tax or mortgage debts - faced two calls for its elimination last year. In 2008, there was a critical audit by the city controller, and, earlier this year, City Council questioned its overtime expenditures.

_ The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority in November issued a report, "A History We Can No Longer Afford," which called for consolidation of the duties performed by four "row offices" including the sheriff, into city agencies. The report estimated that the city could save $13 million to $15 million per year, with $3 million to $3.9 million coming from the Sheriff's Office.

_ The Committee of Seventy, a good-government watchdog group, in March 2009 issued a report, "Needless Jobs," asking if the cash-strapped city, which has elected a sheriff since 1838, should "consider whether this age-old tradition is worth retaining just for tradition's sake."

_ A 2008 city controller audit for fiscal years 2005 and 2006 found "poor internal controls over the payroll, personnel and other expenditure operations in the Sheriff's Office."

_ Deeley, testifying for Green in an April City Council budget hearing, said the Sheriff's Office "faces significant challenges" after budget cuts, but considered its $13.9 million annual budget "adequate" to fund operations. Council President Anna Verna said the agency's $1.3 million overtime budget seemed too expensive.

Another row office, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, has faced sustained criticism for shoddy record keeping and poor performance on issues such as collecting outstanding bail accounts.

Clerk Vivian Miller resigned March 31 from the office she held for 19 years, after a forensic audit of the agency was started and City Council started drawing up legislation to abolish the office.

The city charter allows Council to simply pass a law to eliminate the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Eliminating the Sheriff's Office requires legislation and a ballot referendum asking voters if they want to change the charter.

Williams, who worked for eight years as a police officer for Temple University and then five years in the Sheriff's Office before being elected to the state House in 2000, said the necessary legislation and a referendum could take two to three years. He hopes to use that time to make the case to save the Sheriff's Office.

"You just have to put the right person in there to handle the finances," Williams said. "I just don't think we need to lose the Sheriff's Office, and not just because I'm the front-runner."

Kurtz is also focused on setting the agency's finances straight. He said elimination of the Sheriff's Office would mean more work for the Police Department, which has higher starting salaries for officers than for sheriff's deputies.

"I find myself in a curious position, trying to justify an office I don't hold," Kurtz added.