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'It's patronage. It works:' Donatucci seeks 10th term

Ronald R. Donatucci's City Hall office is adorned with pictures of him with movers and shakers, politicians and presidents.

Ronald R. Donatucci's City Hall office is adorned with pictures of him with movers and shakers, politicians and presidents.

But Donatucci, now seeking his 10th four-year term as register of wills, prefers to show off the thank-you notes from people across the city and the country who have gotten good service from his office. Or the glowing audits it has received. Or its overtime costs: none.

"Not so bad for a 'patronage' office, right?" says Donatucci, 67, grinning widely behind his wooden desk.

His is one of the row offices on Philadelphia's Nov. 3 ballot, along with the sheriff and city commissioners. Given the party's 7-1 registration edge over Republicans, Democrats in those races are almost sure to win.

None more so than Donatucci.

In 35 years as register of wills, he has steadfastly hired the politically connected. He is unabashed about it and says his office works better that way.

An independently elected office, the register of wills oversees marriage licenses and estates as well as wills. With an annual budget of $3.3 million, its 63-member payroll includes six Democratic party ward leaders (including Donatucci) and 21 committee people, according to The Inquirer's count. Most have donated to Donatucci's reelection drives. It's a throwback to the way things once were in many city offices, a style reformers have long tried to undo.

"It's a remnant of what proud former machine politics existed in big cities," David Glancey, former city Democratic chairman, said of the office.

It's an office that Republican Ross Feinberg, who is running against Donatucci, says he wants to close down. He would fold its duties into the courts.

When Philadelphia city and county offices were consolidated into one government in 1952, though, the register of wills was left out. It was deemed quasi-judicial, so it fell under state courts. The office has since operated as its own political oasis.

Donatucci, whose salary is $129,372, answers only to the voters; his employees answer only to him.

"I have nothing against civil service, but everyone in this office works," he said, "and I'm the Civil Service Commission when they don't work."

His office gets mentioned in reports suggesting row offices be abolished. So said the watchdog group Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) in 2009, pushing to close the register of wills, sheriff, clerk of quarter sessions and the city commissioners. The theory: Taxpayers could save money by putting those offices under courts or other departments. Getting rid of patronage was a bonus.

Only the clerk of quarter sessions ended up being eliminated.

Donatucci's GOP rival, Feinberg, is reviving that call. He wants to get rid of the office for which he's running.

"This is what more of our public officials should do," Feinberg, 46, said last week outside the register of wills office on the first floor of City Hall. "Put themselves on the line for what's right and what to do for Philadelphians, not for themselves."

Feinberg, a self-employed investor and former stock trader from the Burholme section, said shifting the duties to the courts would add oversight and civil-service rules. He said the payroll could be cut by a third to "more effectively do the job."

Donatucci in response proudly cites PICA and Committee of Seventy reports that said unlike offices such as the sheriff's, which auditors have cited in years past for mismanaged funds, poor performance or the like, his office has done its job.

"They say, 'Oh, the office functions, but because it's patronage, we need to get rid of it,' " he said, adding that it isn't the old days of ghost employees: "My employees work."

He told of being appalled by civil-service employees' behavior in some other offices. "They're fresh. I can't comprehend how you treat people that way," he said. "For that reason, I'm convinced patronage works."

He broke down his rationale this way:

He gets a call from the city Democratic chairman, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, or a fellow ward leader saying so-and-so needs a job.

Donatucci says the first thing he asks is, "Are they computer-literate?" A college degree? Even better.

So, if there is a job, even a per diem temporary gig, Donatucci hires. He notes that his appointees are like the mayor's: They are "at-will" employees, meaning he can hire or remove them at will.

And if issues arise with the person's work? Donatucci calls the patron.

"If there's an issue with an employee that's recommended, say, by a ward leader, there's nobody better to call than their godfather or godmother, and say, 'You better tell them to tighten up.' "

If they don't, they can be suspended; there's sure to be someone new in the political pipeline, Donatucci said. But suspensions or firings are rare, he said.

Still, critics say patronage needs to go. "People want to have confidence in the city workforce," said David Thornburgh, chief executive of the Committee of Seventy. "We believe in merit, and patronage is not about merit."

Thornburgh called the register of wills, sheriff, and city commissioners' offices "the inflamed appendix of city government."

Appendix or not, few elected officials in the region can match Donatucci for longevity in office. Former City Council President Anna C. Verna served 37 years on Council. Councilman Brian J. O'Neill, like Donatucci, has served 35.

Donatucci also sits on powerful panels - the Board of Directors of City Trusts, Temple University's Board of Trustees, Girard College's board. He is counsel to a local law firm and owns a large portfolio of real estate, which he manages with his two sons.

His phone buzzed nonstop during a two-hour interview. A secretary for Marcel Groen of Montgomery County, the new state Democratic chairman, called to say Groen was running late for lunch.

Their date was at the Capital Grill, to discuss politics and fund-raising for the upcoming Democratic National Convention. The steak house just south of City Hall is a favorite of Donatucci's - he likes using campaign funds to treat his staff to meals there ("no wine, no drinking, at least not for lunch"). He figures they've earned it.

"I'm proud of this office. It's patronage. Or, I'm sorry, it's 'at-will,' " Donatucci quipped. "It works."



Register of Wills Candidates


Ronald R. Donatucci

Party: Democrat

Age: 67

Residence: Queen Village

Occupation: Register of Wills, 1980 to present

Politics: 26th Ward Democratic leader

Education: Temple University, 1970; University of Baltimore School of Law, 1974

Family: Wife, Stephanie; three children

Ross E. Feinberg

Party: Republican

Age: 46

Residence: Burholme

Occupation: Self-employed investor; Republican committeeman in the 56th Ward

Education: attended Villanova University

Military: Navy, 2002-2007

Family: divorced; two children EndText