City Commissioner Anthony Clark, who faced criticism over failing to vote for three years, will again head the three-member board that oversees Philadelphia elections.
And this just in: From now on, Clark told The Inquirer, he'll vote in those elections.
The decision to keep him atop the city's $9.6 million, 98-employee election bureaucracy came Wednesday morning, and a bit unexpectedly: There had been talk that newcomer and fellow Democrat Lisa Deeley might win the post.
But when the board met in its sixth-floor offices at Columbus Boulevard and Spring Garden Street, Commissioner Al Schmidt, the sole Republican, nominated Clark, saying continuity is important for the board, especially when facing what he called "the challenges of a presidential general election" this year.
When the board voted on the nomination, Deeley was silent. Clark, who chaired the meeting, won by 2-0.
"The ayes have it," he announced.
As chairman, Clark gets a salary of $138,612 from the taxpayers. Deeley and Schmidt earn $129,373 each.
"I think in the last three years with [Clark] as the chair of the department, we made a lot of significant improvements," said Schmidt, who has tried to modernize the city's election methods. He touted the new website, internal work rules, and revamped training for the part-timers who run polling places on Election Day.
"Lisa is simply new, it's not a criticism of her," Schmidt said. Nevertheless, the choice surprised some Democratic insiders, who had surmised that Deeley, who replaced Stephanie Singer, would become chair. Deeley, elected last fall, had been in talks with Schmidt before her swearing-in Monday about heading the board.
"I would have welcomed the opportunity to be chair," Deeley said after the vote.
Asked about the board's decision, Mayor Kenney said that last week, at a rehearsal for his inauguration, he and Clark had discussed Clark's frequent absences from the board's offices.
He said Clark told him at the time that he wasn't going to remain chairman.
"I don't know what happened, but you need to come to work," Kenney said of Clark. "I don't have a vote for the chair of the commission, but I suggest he should show up for work. ... In some form I expressed myself to him that it's not a good thing - it makes us all look bad."
Though Clark, 56, is a Democratic ward leader, the city Republican party's top staffer suggested Wednesday that keeping him as chairman could give the GOP's Schmidt more say.
"No one would nominate a Republican as chair," said Joseph J. DeFelice, executive director of the Philadelphia GOP. "So, we're in a position in which Republicans have a significant place at the table." He said Schmidt has "been in a position to have sway and help lead the conversation."
Clark has served as chairman for the last few years, but got heat after Philadelphia City Paper revealed that he had not voted in any city elections in 2012 or 2013, and not until the fall election of 2014. (Records show that he voted in the most recent three elections, and that the other commissioners, Schmidt and Deeley, had voted in every election for the last decade.)
He has also faced criticism for not having a visible presence in the office.
Deeley, for her part, said all that was before she joined the board, "but . . . I know of the climate of chaos and I did not want to continue that." Thus, she said, she did not join the vote to keep Clark as chair.
Clark, in interviews Wednesday, dismissed the attendance issue by saying he does go to the office if he has an appointment there, but also gets his job done from elsewhere.
"As an elected official, you get called to do different things. You're not just sitting at the desk. This is a world of technology - I'm always in communication," he said.
As for his voting record, he said he had exercised his right to not vote.
"I'm an American. Under the Constitution, there is no mandatory voting in America," Clark said. "If any member as part of this board gets into a situation where they can't vote, that's their personal choice that has nothing to do with the running of the office."
Asked why he had missed five elections within three years, Clark blamed personal reasons, including illness, but declined to elaborate.
Pat Christmas, senior policy analyst for the civic watchdog group Committee of Seventy, called it "a strange circumstance" to have a person with a poor attendance record at the polls run the city's elections.
But he said that if Schmidt believes the continuity is a good thing for the office, perhaps there's merit to that. "We'll have to see how things play out," Christmas said.
Clark vowed to become more accessible - and to take part in city elections from now on.
"I don't plan on missing another vote, OK?" he said, smiling widely.
Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.