By Konstantine Fekos
The first term could be the last for Crawford County’s current elected jury commissioners, expecting to be out of a job by 2014. The position-cutting measure is the first step by county commissioners toward fulfilling their promise to decrease spending in the new year.
Crawford County commissioners followed the lead of county officials statewide who acted on House Bill 1644’s allowance to adopt, by majority vote, “a resolution abolishing the office of jury commissioner.”
Originally under the assumption they had more time to reach a decision, county commissioners reviewed the state legislation, which mandates the approval to eliminate the position be passed by the end of 2012.
David Kennedy and Betty Williams, first-term jury commissioners, received word of their office’s liquidation on Dec. 31, following the county commissioners’ vote that morning.
“It has nothing to do with performance; both commissioners were excellent,” said Francis Weiderspahn, chairman of the county board of commissioners. “We felt we needed to remain consistent in our promise to save the taxpayers money. It makes financial sense.”
With these two positions gone, the county will save an approximate $20,000 a year they are paid, according to Weiderspahn, who said he spoke with the jury commissioners off and on since a meeting in late summer.
“They knew we were considering it,” said Weiderspahn. “This is definitely one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make, but it’s consistent with what we said we’d do fiscally for the county.”
Kennedy recalled county officials requesting his and Williams’ presence for a single meeting.
“Several months ago, county commissioners called myself and my fellow jury commissioner,” he said. “We were requested to inform the new commissioners of our responsibilities, and we willingly did so.”
Kennedy claimed no subsequent meetings took place and neither jury commissioner heard any news regarding possible liquidation until after the vote.
Crawford County jury commissioners hold part-time positions with an average 2013 salary of $10,598 each.
Upon the expiration of their four-year term, their responsibilities are expected to undergo a digital shift during the positions’ eventual move to Court Administrator John Shuttleworth’s office, where they will be processed electronically.
“Two of my part-timers will work a couple of extra hours,” said Shuttleworth. “The additional time should cost under $10,000 (a year).”
“We think we can do it more efficiently with today’s computers,” said C. Sherman Allen, county commissioner. “State legislation allows the counties to do this. (The jury commissioners) were giving their 100 percent in my opinion.”
Jury commission duties include jury selection through a process of sending questionnaires to potential jurors residing in-county and reviewing results, essentially pooling together those who meet requirements.
Commissioners receive a monthly court order from President Judge Anthony Vardaro, requesting certain numbers of jurors to be selected from the jury pool.
“I feel an elected official has accountability to the electorate,” said Kennedy. “It’s been a great pleasure being elected by the citizens of Crawford County.”
Jury commissioners offer not only accountability, but a necessary buffer between potential bias, demographic and otherwise, in jury selection, according to Mary Jane Dellafiora, legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania State Association of Elected Officials (PSAECO) and an Indiana County jury commissioner.
“In practicality, (the resolution) may work, but you could have a biased selection by age or address or any number of things,” she said, crediting bipartisan counteraction as a more effective tool than list selections generated by computer programs.
Specific software for jury responsibilities, Dellafiora added, is costly enough to dash the hopes of county officials hoping to save money.
“Someone still has to do the job and be paid for their work,” she said.
The PSAECO is currently working to repeal the state legislation ruled constitutional by a 4-3 vote at the Commonwealth Court which failed to deter the organization.
“Right now PSAECO and individuals are in the appeal process at the Supreme Court level,” said Dellafiora.
If the legislation is repealed, counties will need to fill the positions, possibly holding special elections if a new resolution is reached beyond the petition and primary election processes.
HB 1644 disallows the abolishment of a jury commissioner’s office prior to an expired term. Therefore, if county officials failed to meet the 2012 deadline, they must wait until the next four-year term expires to vote on the resolution again.
“This was and always will be a good opportunity to work with good people in the courthouse,” said Kennedy, who plans to continue serving his county well. “I do relish public service.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.