What is the origin of the term row office?

The following is from Christina Crayton, "Elected or Appointed County Officials? Who's Really on the ROW!" NACO Research Brief (vol. 2, no. 4) (National Association of Counties, January 2004), http://www.naco.org/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm?ContentID=11773:

The traditional county distribution of power is characterized by a division of administrative responsibilities between the county governing board and separately elected offices. These separately elected offices are commonly known as “row offices” due to their appearance in a row on organizational charts or election ballots and the relative autonomy of each office from the central board. This autonomy or independence is built on their legal status and accountability to the electorate. Row offices are most common in commission- and board-structured counties, but they are also found in all other forms. In non-commission counties, row offices are usually fewer in number and may have less authority. In charter counties, row offices may be appointed by the board or elected executive.

Constitutional provisions for certain row offices are common. The position of sheriff is present in all but two states (though not all are constitutionally required). Alaska and Hawaii (which have elected police chiefs) are the only states without sheriffs. Other offices frequently mandated by state constitutions include the county clerk, auditor, treasurer, and court clerk. Where possible, offices are designated in the table as “constitutional.”

County clerks are generally responsible for administrative support to the county board and many times for election administration details. In California there are appointed and elected registers of voters and in Florida there are election supervisors. An auditor is responsible for the accounting and auditing of county agencies and general fiscal affairs. A treasurer is specifically responsible for all county moneys and records on revenues, as well as other fiscal matters related to general funds. A court clerk is responsible for: serving the county court system, including records maintenance, and may be responsible for one or more levels of court proceedings; collection and recording of fines, penalties, and court costs; and judicial correspondence. The position of court clerk is authorized in at least 27 states including Delaware and Pennsylvania where similar responsibilities are vested in positions with the title of “prothonotary.”

Many row offices are also established by state statutes. Frequent examples include the positions of prosecuting attorney, county attorney, register of deeds, recorder, coroner, assessor, tax collector, school superintendent, and surveyor. These positions may be included in the state constitution, but are more commonly enacted through state laws.

The general responsibility of a prosecuting attorney is to prosecute suspected criminals in the name of the state. The county attorney acts as the attorney to the county governing board by providing legal opinions and representing the county in legal matters. Many states and individual counties have combined these roles into one elected county attorney position and it can be appointed in nine states. A minimum of 41 states have a prosecuting attorney and/or a county attorney including South Carolina, which calls the position “solicitor.”

The registrar of deeds and the recorder’s office represent similar functions involving the recording of all transfers of property and additional legal documents as deemed necessary. This function exists under either name in at least 28 states. The function may also be carried out by the county clerk in states where the registrar or recorder position does not exist or may be legally combined with the clerk, as in Montana and Idaho.

The position of coroner is responsible for determining the cause of death resulting from suspicious or violent circumstances. Twenty-two states authorize this position including Hawaii, which allows it to be combined with the position of police chief; Iowa, which allows an appointed or elected medical examiner; and Wisconsin, which utilizes medical examiners and coroners.

The assessor position, noted in 33 states, is responsible for establishing property values subject to county property taxes and in many states the assessor is charged with collecting property taxes. A specific tax collector position is only designated in 10 states including Georgia’s tax commissioners and Tennessee’s trustees. Finally, elected county school superintendents, historically common, are identified in 11 states with limited powers over school financial and program services. While also historically very strong, the surveyor’s office exists now with limited surveying duties; existing in only 13 states.

There are numerous other row offices and variations on row offices which are unique to one or two states or play minor roles in county government operations. In Michigan a drain commissioner is elected. Kentucky elects county jailers while Vermont elects commissioners of jail delivery. Minnesota authorizes appointed civil defense directors.

Ohio elects county engineers, while four other states appoint them and Wisconsin allows a combined Engineer-Surveyor position. Three states utilize public administrators responsible for the management of estates and implementation of state probate laws while New Jersey counties have the position of surrogate to fulfill this need.

The public administrator position is often combined with another office such as coroner and is usually appointed or elected at the discretion of the community.

The list could continue with many more details. For a more extensive discussion of these offices and the issues surrounding them, the following references should be useful:

Herbert S. Duncombe, Modern County Government, NACo: 1977.

From America’s Counties Today, NACo: 1973.

The County Year Book, NACo/ICMA: 1975-1978.

The City and County Data Book, U.S. Bureau of the Census: 2004