Vivian T. Miller, a top elected official in Philadelphia's court system who has run an office criticized by civic groups, judges, and auditors as poorly managed, unduly expensive, and obsolete, said yesterday that she would step down just over halfway through her term.
Miller's resignation from her $112,000-a-year job as clerk of quarter sessions, whose office maintains court records and helps process bail and defendants' fines and fees, is effective March 31.
Criticism of her office grew after The Inquirer disclosed last year that the city had an uncollected debt of $1 billion in forfeited bail from fugitives and that Miller's staff had no computer record of who owed what.
Government-reform groups have urged that the clerk's office - with its 110 employees and $5 million annual budget - be abolished and its functions absorbed by the city and courts.
Mayor Nutter refused to take a stand on that yesterday during a news conference at which he and Miller announced her decision to quit.
"There will be a time to get into it in the future," he said.
Miller, 74, said nothing of substance about her 19 years as clerk during her resignation speech. She would not answer questions afterward.
"I go in peace, love, and harmony," she said.
It was a rare appearance by Miller, who typically has not attended public events, citing illness or family reasons.
Zack Stalberg, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, the nonpartisan watchdog group, said that he understood Nutter's desire to be "gracious" to Miller, but that the mayor should have stated his view on whether the office should be abolished - a call his organization repeated yesterday.
"The office is not performing effectively, and it is not cheap to run," Stalberg said. "I wish he had told the taxpayers how he intends to permanently deal with the mess."
Stalberg said that given the city's fiscal woes, an "immediate priority" should be going after the $1 billion in uncollected bail.
Nutter has blamed Miller's office for the problem. "Unfortunately, the clerk of quarter sessions is unable to provide records of debtors and the amounts that have been paid or unpaid," he wrote last fall.
Daniel Cantu-Hertzler, chair of the corporate and tax group within the City Solicitor's Office, said yesterday that the effort to collect the money remained stalled.
The Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA), which oversees city financial management, has also urged that the clerk's office - a vestige of when Philadelphia had a separate county government - be abolished. So has Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a judicial-reform organization.
In the short term, Nutter said, the office will be supervised by the first deputy - Miller's daughter, Robin T. Jones, who is paid $72,800 yearly.
In January, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille told The Inquirer that he would order the First Judicial District, the main overseer of the city's courts, to absorb many of the functions of the clerk's office.
In response, Miller's attorney, Samuel C. Stretton, said abolishing the office would be a mistake. He faulted Castille, who has administrative power over the courts.
"They want a scapegoat" for problems in the court system, he said.
Miller was expected to retire after her term expired in January 2012. She signaled her plans by enrolling in the DROP (Deferred Retirement Option Plan) program, under which government employees pick a retirement date and let their benefits grow in a special account.
Miller last won election to the post in 2007, garnering more than 175,000 votes. She was first elected in 1991. Previously, she served as an aide to U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers, who was convicted in a corruption scandal.
Miller also served as the Democratic leader of the 51st Ward in Southwest Philadelphia. In January, the city's Ethics Board filed a complaint against her in Common Pleas Court, saying she violated campaign-finance laws in her last reelection campaign in 2007. Stretton said yesterday that the complaint was without merit.
For several years, city and state auditors have criticized Miller's financial management and record-keeping, and urged her to hire a collection agency to go after the bail money and more than $280 million in fines, fees, and restitution.
The Committee of Seventy initially called for the abolition of the office in March 2009, when it issued a report urging the city to eliminate four row offices and the six elected officials who run them.
Besides the clerk of quarter sessions, the offices include those of the sheriff, the register of wills, and the three city commissioners, who supervise elections.
Yesterday, Stalberg, the group's president and chief executive, noted that City Council had approved a measure to ask voters to abolish the Board of Revision of Taxes that will be on the ballot in May.
The BRT's failures in setting property taxes were the subject of extensive Inquirer coverage last year.
The clerk's position dates to the 1600s, but has lost many of its duties over the centuries. Since the office predates the 1951 Home Rule Charter, Council can abolish it without putting the question to the voters.
Unlike the BRT, the clerk's office has few patronage employees. This may make it even more vulnerable to political action to abolish it.
With both the BRT and the quarter sessions office "on the way out," Stalberg said yesterday, the city should wipe out the other row offices.
PICA has also urged the abolishment of all four row offices, saying this could save taxpayers as much as $15 million yearly.
Early last year, Pamela Pryor Dembe, president judge of Common Pleas Court, alleged that Miller's staff botched its handling of key financial accounts, including bail money, court fines, and restitution to crime victims.
Dembe ordered Miller to surrender control of the office's bank accounts and give up some of its major duties.
Miller defied the judge's order, and ignored a deadline she imposed. The clash cooled after Castille urged the two to work out a solution.
"I still have a little fight left in me," Miller said at the time. "I'm not going to give it up."