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Is ballot question over 'resign-to-run' a riddle?

Councilman Oh wants voters to end Philly's "resign-to-run" rule, but the ballot question's wording has some confused.

Councilman David Oh at the WHYY studios,  Monday, October 17, 2011. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer  )
Councilman David Oh at the WHYY studios, Monday, October 17, 2011. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

LIKE MANY Philadelphians, Roxborough resident Anthony Hollis thinks that politicians should have to resign from their posts before running for new ones.

"They should resign so they can dedicate themselves to more effectively do one job," Hollis said.

So Hollis presumably would object to a proposed ballot question from Councilman David Oh that, if voters approve, would end the city's "resign-to-run" rule and allow officials to keep their jobs while running for new offices.

But after reading the 48-word question, which voters may see in the May primary, Hollis believed the proposed change actually would create a resign-to-run policy and said he would vote, "Yes."

"That's just mind-boggling," said Hollis, 58, after being told that affirming the question would do the opposite.

And he's not alone. The People Paper surveyed 10 random Philly residents who were walking in Center City yesterday. After reading Oh's ballot question, nine of them - including a lawyer - said they thought the proposed change would create a resign-to-run rule, not abolish one.

Voters rejected a proposal to end the rule in 2007 - the only Home Rule Charter amendment that Philadelphians have turned away since 2001 - so a different result just six years later would be surprising.

After being told the survey results by a reporter, Oh emailed his Council colleagues last night to announce that he will propose amending the ballot question to make it clearer.

Oh said he spent months working on the wording and that the issue of clarity never came up.

"We tried to make the language as plain and as simple as possible, but there's no very convenient way to do it," Oh said. "I'm not the average bear, being an attorney and what not, so what appears to me to be simple language may be confusing to some people."

Oh said that getting rid of the rule would boost Philadelphia's clout in Harrisburg by encouraging the city's top-tier politicians to seek state offices.

The proposal wouldn't be as helpful to city officials seeking another city office - say, a Council member who wants to be mayor - because they still cannot run for more than one office simultaneously and those city races occur at the same time.

This provision was referenced in the ballot question by saying officials could seek "not more than one public office" without resigning. Oh's new amendment would delete that phrase and insert "a different public office."

It was this line that caused the most confusion among survey respondents - and the confusion cut both ways.

Lawyer Anthony Mills, 53, agrees with Oh on the issue: "If you're a good candidate, if you're running for a higher office, I think you should be able to retain your office," said Mills, of Overbrook.

But Mills said he probably would have voted, "No," if the question had not been explained to him by a reporter.

"Wow. Hmm. OK," Mills said while rereading the question several times. "Yes, this is a bit misleading."

The lone grammar guru who properly decoded the question was Vince Dowdle Jr., of Fox Chase.

"You take out everything but the noun and the verb," said Dowdle, 56, who owns a swimming-pool-enclosure firm. "It says, 'Are they allowed to become candidates without resigning?' "