Philly register of wills candidate wants to abolish city row office

 Ross Feinberg, GOP candidate for Register of Wills, and supporters gather outside the office Wednesday at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Ross Feinberg, GOP candidate for Register of Wills, and supporters gather outside the office Wednesday at City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Democrat Ron Donatucci has held the office of register of wills in Philadelphia for 35 years. His Republican challenger, Ross Feinberg, is running to make sure no one ever holds the office again.

The register of wills is one of Philadelphia’s more obscure elected offices, but it’s a pretty important one. The register issues marriage licenses, validates wills, handles cases where people die without leaving their final instructions, and collects inheritance taxes for the state Department of Revenue. 

“I’m running to abolish the office as an elected position,” said Feinberg during a press conference last week. 

The Northeast Philadelphia resident has called a press conference outside Donatucci’s office in City Hall almost every week since the end of August. (He skipped one week for Yom Kippur.) At his ninth and final event, Feinberg reiterated his plan to petition City Council to fold the register of wills office into the court system, a move the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority or PICA said in 2009 could save as much as $2.6 million a year

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But first, he said, he would change the office’s hiring practices, which have been criticized by PICA and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy as a patronage mill. The register of wills office is exempt from the city’s civil service system.

“People who deserve jobs need to work in this office,” Feinberg said. “Not your cronies, not your political allies.”

In a recent phone interview, Donatucci countered, “Why abolish something that works?”

He admitted he has hired Democratic committee people and ward leaders (they make up a little less than half of his staff, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer), but pointed out that even the authors of the 2009 PICA report note “few concerns” about his office’s performance.

Patronage helps him run a tight ship, Donatucci said. That’s why his employees always give their names when they answer the phone.

“I want feedback A, if they’re doing a good job or B, if they’re a little bit fresh or you know, if you weren’t satisfied,” he said. “At least when you call me or write me a letter, I’ll get back to you.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3. Click here to see NewsWorks/WHYY’s full election guide. 

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