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Committee of Seventy’s ‘rock in the pond’ | John Baer

As the May primary election approaches, Philadelphia's political/government watchdog group is hoping to focus voter attention on needed reforms to city politics.

Philadelphia City Hall.
Philadelphia City Hall.Read moreReid Kanaley/Staff/File

Maybe to make waves you start with ripples.

Seems to be part of a plan to reform local politics, which, not unlike state politics, is badly in need of – and resistant to – same.

Especially because of the “Philly shrug,” as in, "Hey, it’s Philadelphia, whaddya gonna do? And our state motto: “Pennsylvania, the Land of Low Expectations.”

(OK, it’s not our motto. I made it up years ago.)

Yet, because time marches on, there seems more interest these days in pushing change in a city and state known for corruption and anti-democratic politics.

The latest push?

Philly’s good-government watchdog, the Committee of Seventy, just launched “Resolution 1,” a reform plan aimed at empowering citizens.

Lots of it mirrors reforms sought in Harrisburg. I’m all in.

It calls, among other things, for open primary elections – the only elections that matter in Philly, and many places in Pennsylvania – to give all voters a say in who represents them.

That means the city’s 127,000-plus independent and third-party voters could help pick, for example, City Council and local judges, a privilege currently the sole province of 818,000 Democrats and (at least nominally) 118,000 Republicans.

How do you think that’s working out?

If you’re registered to vote you be should able to vote.

(In Harrisburg, GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati has a bipartisan bill creating open primaries statewide.)

Seventy also seeks to end or mitigate Philly’s problem of ballot position carrying far too much weight in local elections.

In a crowded field of candidates, those who draw top ballot spots (out of a coffee can, I’d remind you) are likely to win.

Shouldn’t work that way.

Seventy says why not have different ballots, same candidates, rotated positions, in each ward or division?

Why not, indeed.

The resolution also calls for a citizen commission to draw district lines for Council seats, and term limits for Council members.

(Councilman Allen Domb introduced a term-limits measure in February. Harrisburg has a bipartisan plan to give citizens power in drawing lines for Congress and the legislature. And a reasonable bipartisan proposal is in the works to term-limit state lawmakers.)

I’ve argued for years for open primaries, term limits, and election/redistricting reforms. A voice in the wilderness.

So, I’ve got big-time empathy with Seventy boss David Thornburgh. I asked him why this, why now?

“We’re just dropping a rock in the pond,” he said.

He cites the upcoming May 21 primary, for all 17 Council seats, mayor, register of wills, sheriff, three city commissioners and local judges, as a time of greater public awareness of local politics.

But, he said, “Resolution 1 is not a three-week effort. … It’s a process of percolation. We want to get a discussion going.”

There are outreach plans with business groups, civic groups, and others stretching out over the next couple years.

(Hey, it took Hercules 12 years to accomplish his labors.)

But Thornburgh’s curious to see the extent to which incumbent challengers are successful in May as a test of citizen appetite for change.

He said the basic question Seventy is asking officeholders and the public is, “How can you put up with the way we do politics in Philadelphia?”

How, indeed?

And though change is a tall order, Thornburgh points to the city outdoing the state in relatively recent years with campaign finance limits, rules to end pay-to-play for city contracts, and an independent Board of Ethics that actually seems to recognize unethical behavior.

In the past, I’ve quoted the Bard of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, on reform: “I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.” My experience tends to bear that out.

But there’s always something – a citizens’ group, a Committee of Seventy – striving to make politics better, to remind people the government is theirs.

So, instead of leaving you with Mencken, let me offer words from George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, first published in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser: “The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”

With that in mind, I hope Seventy starts throwing anvils in the pond.