HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County's two jury commissioners, Joy Foreman and Donna Cohen, have joined the fight to stop legislation that would give county commissioners the power to abolish their offices.
The Pennsylvania County Commissioners Association has for years proposed the state's 67 boards of county commissioners be given the right to eliminate elected jury commissioners and assign their duties to other county workers, most likely in the county's Office of Court Administration.
The association sees this as a step toward streamlining county government. The proposal has the support of state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, who served as a county commissioner for 11 years before being elected state senator.
Eichelberger said Friday that county government is "very cumbersome" and said streamlining it would be "a positive for Pennsylvania."
He predicted that the Pennsylvania House and Senate are close to agreeing on the legislation.
A member of the Senate's Local Government Committee, Eichelberger said the bills before the Senate and the House would provide two ways to change the system. One would give the commissioners the right to abolish the jury commissioners in their county. The other would give the commissioners the power to put the question on the ballot.
He said that if the system is working in a particular county, the proposals allow for it to remain in place.
In Blair County, the jury commissioner posts are elected part-time jobs that pay $11,596 annually. Both Foreman, a Republican, and Cohen, a Democrat, said they are in their office on the second floor of the courthouse several times a week.
In addition to summoning residents for jury duty, they review the questionnaires that prospective jurors fill out.
They said one of their biggest jobs is answering hundreds of calls from individuals requesting to be excused from jury duty and contacting jurors who fail to show up.
After attending a recent meeting of the state's jury commissioners, Foreman and Cohen wrote to Gov. Tom Corbett, asking that he exercise his veto power over any legislation that would allow the elimination of elected jury commissioners.
"We are all looking to reduce costs at this difficult time. However, somebody has to do the work, so if these bills become law the county commissioners will have the power to hire the person, or persons, whom they choose at whatever salary they wish to pay," they wrote.
They also said they do much more than "gathering lists of prospective jurors."
"Over the years we have found that those county commissioners who wanted to remove their jury commissioners most often were those who were personally or politically at odds with those who held the office. Personal conflicts should never be a reason to change a law," stated Foreman and Cohen.
Because the jury commissioners are elected and from different parties, it ensures impartial selection of prospective jurors, they said.
Corbett responded in a letter, writing: "Please know that I will continue to bear in mind your thoughts should this legislation require my signature."
The president of the Pennsylvania Association of Jury Commissioners is Thomas C. Chernisky of Cambria County. He said appointed jury commissioners would answer to no one.
He said under the present system, jury commissioners are accountable to the voters in their respective counties, which he said assures that those called to jury duty are a cross-section of the community.
Chernisky and Eichelbeger said that, in some counties, jury commissioners don't spend much time on the job.
Blair County, Chernisky said, is not one of those counties.
"You have active jury commissioners. They represent the people of Blair County very well," he said.
Eichelberger predicted that when the Senate reconvenes this month, legislation regarding the jury commissioners will pass.
"This is a priority for the County Commissioners Association. They are pushing to get it done," he said.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.