MAYOR NUTTER this week appointed a six-person fact-finding team to look into the screw-ups on Election Day this year as well as the overall registration and election operations in the City Commissioners' Office. In last month's election, more than 27,000 voters were forced to use provisional paper ballots, which are counted after the polls closed. Among those were thousands of voters who were registered but not found in official polling books. A preliminary report says part of the problem was extracting data from the state's database.
We welcome the appointment of the team, to be headed by Managing Director Rich Negrin. We're also glad City Controller Alan Butkovitz is conducting his own look-see into the snafus. The city commissioners are also conducting an internal probe.
At least one of these reports should answer how and why the system had these glitches on Nov. 6. But the more important question is: Why do we still have city commissioners?
This row office is an antique that dates back to Colonial days when the city and county borders were not contiguous. After consolidation in 1854, the county commissioners didn't have much to do. The powers they once held were given to the mayor. Eventually, they were given control over the Election Bureau.
The three elected city commissioners, two Democrats and one Republican, cost $500,000 a year in salaries and benefits alone. As the Committee of Seventy pointed out in a 2009 report, the commissioners "are free to operate with a bad combination of autonomy and anonymity." Philadelphia is the only city of the 10 largest in the U.S. where local elected officials run elections.
At the time of the 2009 report, the commissioners were led by Marge Tartaglione, a Democratic ward leader who ruled the office with an iron hand for 36 years. Tartaglione was defeated in the May 2011 primary by Stephanie Singer, who ran as a "reform team" with Republican candidate Al Schmidt. They promised to work together to professionalize and modernize the office.
After the election, Schmidt voted with Anthony Clark, the other Democratic commissioner, to oust Singer as chair. Schmidt and Clark, who also is Democratic leader of the 28th Ward, are acting as co-chairs. So this "reform team" is no longer such a team.
At Wednesday's public meeting of the commissioners, Schmidt says he will introduce a plan to overhaul the department; he says there was too much pressure getting ready for the presidential election and dealing with the twists and turns of the voter-ID law to manage such a reorganization before now.
That's fair enough, but the fact is that this proposal will need the votes of the other commissioners. It's entirely possible that they won't vote to move on it. The three are independently elected; they don't have to act as a unified body. And that's a problem for an office that needs to be brought into the current century.
Abolishing the office would require a change in the city charter and be approved by voters in a referendum. Nutter's fact-finding team should explore how that could be done. Under the current system, we are paying far too much for far too little.