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Committee of Seventy seeks abolition of city commissioners

Saying the city election board's problems are "larger" than Chairman Anthony Clark's controversial ways, Philadelphia's oldest civic watchdog group is calling for the board to be abolished.

Anthony Clark, flanked by his fellow members of the City Commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt.
Anthony Clark, flanked by his fellow members of the City Commissioners, Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Saying the city election board's problems are "larger" than Chairman Anthony Clark's controversial ways, Philadelphia's oldest civic watchdog group is calling for the board to be abolished.

In a statement to be made public Friday, the Committee of Seventy asks City Council to begin the process of eliminating the three elected city commissioner positions through a charter change, and to have elections run instead by "appointed election professionals."

The call comes after two weeks of nearly nonstop controversy surrounding Clark. On Jan. 6, he was reelected as the $138,612-a-year chairman of the commissioners, and, as the Inquirer reported, he promptly signed up for a $495,000 pension payout via the DROP program. That followed reports of his having not voted in many elections and rarely showing up at his City Hall office.

"Enough is enough," the Committee of Seventy's chief executive, David Thornburgh, said Thursday night.

How much support such a move might gain from key city leaders was not immediately clear. Mayor Kenney said Clark's conduct had "created an environment for that to be seriously considered." City Council President Darrell L. Clarke declined to comment. Each said he had not seen a specific proposal for replacing the commissioners.

The Committee of Seventy's statement called Clark's conduct "embarrassing and insulting to the voters and taxpayers."

But "the problem is larger," the statement said. "The political system and political culture in Philadelphia that enables his conduct deflects attention from the real and important work that the City Commissioners are supposed to lead."

The Committee of Seventy has proposed abolishing elected row offices before. Its 2009 report called for shutting down four, including the commissioners. With support from then-Mayor Michael Nutter and others, the city did close one - the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, which the Inquirer reported had lost track of $1 billion in bail money, and which had long been criticized for poor fiscal management.

Contacted late Thursday, two of the three commissioners took exception to the idea that their jobs should be abolished. They said Thornburgh's group was snubbing voters and ignoring the value of bipartisan oversight. City law requires that one of the commissioners be from the minority party.

"The key to good governance is electing good people. Seventy is naive to think that appointments aren't political," said Al Schmidt, the board's sole Republican.

"We want the people to be in charge. They vote for people who they want to represent them," Democrat Lisa Deeley, a newly elected commissioner, said.

Clark could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.

Clark, 56, a longtime Democratic ward leader, easily won a third four-year term as commissioner last year despite reports of a spotty voting record and absences from the office. His being renamed chairman of the board, which oversees the city's $9.6 million election bureaucracy, came on a surprise move by Schmidt, who said keeping Clark in the post gives the agency the continuity it needs in a busy presidential election year.

Schmidt, who has pushed to modernize the agency, also saw himself losing autonomy if Deeley became chairman.

But powerful Democrats had backed Deeley. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, the party's city chairman, told the Inquirer this week that Clark, whom he called a "disgrace," had reneged on a handshake deal to support her. Brady also said he had urged Clark this week to "show up" for work, and said Clark had promised to do so.

Clark has been seen working in his City Hall office the last three days.

He has said that previous health problems kept him from the polls, that he would vote from now on, and that he stays in touch with staff via phone when he is hosting voting presentations, on other community outreach, or on personal trips to places as far away as Egypt.

Another Democrat who told of a plan to replace Clark as chairman was Edgar "Sonny" Campbell, head of the Black Ward Leaders association. Campbell said ward leaders feared headlines about Clark's habits "would bring scrutiny to the office."

"We already lost the Clerk of Quarter Sessions as a row office," said Campbell, whose father once held that job. "We would like to keep this row office."

Now Thornburgh's group is trying to abolish the office and replace it with appointees.

"There's a deep level of resentment and frustration" with the elected commissioners, Thornburgh said. But he said he had not yet talked with Kenney or Council.

Kenney said he was open-minded.

"I don't have a position on that yet because I haven't seen legislation, but I will tell you that Commissioner Clark has created an environment for that to be seriously considered," he said. "I've been very clear: If you don't come to work, you shouldn't get paid, and if you don't vote and you're an elections commissioner, you probably shouldn't have that job. This is perhaps the time we have a comprehensive conversation about that."

Then the mayor shared a bit more of his thinking on the controversy.

"I can make an argument for it to change," he said, "but unless I can ordain that myself, we have to have a discussion with Council."

Doing away with elected offices such as the commissioners is complicated. Thornburgh said a two-thirds vote of Council and the mayor's signature are needed to enact legislation putting a question to the voters about whether to eliminate the offices by changing the City Charter.

Thornburgh said he believed momentum for change existed. "Anyone has to be totally offended by all of this," he said.


Staff writer Tricia L. Nadolny contributed to this article.

End 'comfortable, corrupt' Philly election system: Committee of 70's statement


"As it's been revealed over the last few years, and even the last few weeks, City Commissioner Anthony Clark's behavior is embarrassing and insulting to the voters and taxpayers of Philadelphia. His conduct also has serious and damaging consequences for Philadelphia's reputation in our state capital and around the country. At a time when the city needs political support from lawmakers from across Pennsylvania on important issues like school funding for our children, we can't afford the perception that we tolerate and reward elected officials who can't be bothered to show up for work. In similar fashion, this summer the eyes of the world will be on Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention, and this stark example of a self-serving political culture will only create headlines for countless damaging stories about Philadelphia.

"But there's more than perception at stake here, and the problem is larger than Mr. Clark's conduct. The political system and political culture in Philadelphia that enables his conduct deflects attention from the real and important work that the City Commissioners are supposed to lead. The people of Philadelphia deserve more, and there's plenty of work to do. Voter turnout continues to spiral downhill - only about 12 percent of young voters voted last May. Our growing communities of immigrant citizens, and our disabled citizens, demand and have a right to complete access to the polls, and they're not getting it. Also telling, a Committee of Seventy survey of Philadelphia voters last November revealed that fully 1 in 5 don't really trust the fairness of the voting process in the city.

"Philadelphia voters deserve professional leadership of the election process. The fundamental right to fair elections - which in our history countless men and women gave their lives to protect - is too important to be left in the hands of a comfortable and corrupt political process. What can be done? Over the past few weeks, many other citizens and public officials have asked that question - and come up empty-handed. The legal paths in Pennsylvania to removing a city commissioner from office are few and difficult.

"But there is a way to solve this problem, and there is a clear path forward. We need to replace the politically elected and connected City Commissioners with the leadership of appointed election professionals, as does every other county in Pennsylvania and big cities like Chicago. The Committee of Seventy calls on members of City Council to begin the process that amends the City Charter to accomplish that goal. In the weeks and months ahead, we look forward to joining forces with other like-minded citizens and civic leadership groups from across the city to advocate for this change and restore our confidence that the electoral process is run fairly, effectively, and efficiently.

"It's about time we make sure that this system, fundamental to our local democracy, works for all of us, not for the self-interest of a few politically connected individuals."EndText