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DN Editorial: Silence on sins of commissioners

WHO'S AFRAID of City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, the 77-year-old ward leader in charge of the government agency that runs Philly's elections?

Marge Tartaglione (left) & Council's Verna.
Marge Tartaglione (left) & Council's Verna.Read more

WHO'S AFRAID of City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, the 77-year-old ward leader in charge of the government agency that runs Philly's elections?

Based on the yawning silence surrounding her recent antics, the question is: Who isn't?

Last week, the City Ethics Commission revealed that Tartaglione's chief deputy, who also happens to be her daughter, Renee, had resigned after violating the city's ethics code by distributing "street money" on Election Day on behalf of the local Democratic Party, working as de facto ward leader, and other violations. City workers aren't supposed to be involved in politics.

That's bad enough, but the story took a turn for the surreal when Tartaglione was asked by a young reporter if the election process had been corrupted. Tartaglione responded by threatening to "jump over this table and punch you out!"

Of course, that's no less surreal than the structure of the city commissioners. In most major cities, an appointed official oversees the election process. Here in Philadelphia, we elect three commissioners, who are each paid more than $100,000 a year to perform what is essentially an administrative function.

So, given the Tartaglione family's antics and the broader problems with the city commissioners, where are the voices for reform?

Don't look to City Council, where not a single member has sponsored legislation to reform the office or, better yet, abolish it completely. Some members have offered similar legislation that targets the sheriff, another row office that has been criticized for similar issues. So why not the commissioners?

We could ask the same question of Mayor Nutter. A spokesman said the mayor wants a "detailed analysis" of the city commissioners, but stopped short of endorsing abolishing the office as an elected post. This is especially bizarre because Nutter worked to abolish the clerk of Quarter Sessions, another mother/daughter act that wasn't working out very well.

In fact, the administration cited an analysis of the Fire Department currently being conducted by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority as an example of the kind of study needed. We'll save them the trouble: PICA already did an analysis of the commissioners in 2009 . . . and said the office should be abolished.

Here's the truth: Elected officials are squeamish because of the political power wielded by Tartaglione. She's been a force in Philadelphia politics since the Frank Rizzo era and, as a ward leader, has an enormous amount of power over who gets endorsed by the local Democratic machine.

That simple fact underlines the argument for reform. Beyond the issue of cost and efficiency, how can we trust someone with a direct stake in the outcome of elections to supervise the process?

Tartaglione's response to valid questions about the purity of her office was unacceptable. It's time for someone to jump over the table, speak up and take on the office of City Commissioners. *