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Few votes for Philly's expensive election chieftains

Philadelphia, the nation's poorest big city, spends $400,000 a year on three employees who don't necessarily work hard for the money.

Voters queue up Tuesday in Northwest Philadelphia.
Voters queue up Tuesday in Northwest Philadelphia.Read moreClem Murray / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia, the nation's poorest big city, spends $400,000 a year on three employees who don't necessarily work hard for the money.

The City Commissioners, with salaries of $129,600 and, for their chairman, $138,400, each collect almost four times the city's median household income for their elected posts atop Philadelphia's elections agency. But two people who have held the job say it's not full time.

"The only full-time part of it is the pay," former Commissioner Stephanie Singer told the Inquirer. Marian Tasco, a longtime city councilwoman who served a term as a commissioner, recalled, "I really had nothing to do."

While the City Commissioners officially oversee elections, most of the actual work is done by civil servants. And the commissioners aren't even on the job for their entire four-year terms. In the fourth year, judges make decisions in the commissioners' place while they run for reelection.

Commissioners Chairman Anthony Clark had dispensed even with the appearance of working, rarely showing up at the office until earlier this year, the Inquirer's Claudia Vargas reported. Al Schmidt, the lone Republican commissioner, effectively runs the office thanks to a deal with Clark, making him a one-man argument for a single professional director. Commissioner Lisa Deeley says she's busy, but the tasks she cites, such as speaking to civic associations and senior centers, sound like campaigning.

The commissioners are so invisible to the public that many voters who encounter difficulties contact the good-government group Committee of Seventy for help. They're even invisible to some of the people they employ: One poll worker called Seventy about his paycheck.

Perhaps to address the visibility problem, the commissioners recently cut a public-service announcement urging people to vote. It looks enough like a campaign ad that it may have served the commissioners more than the public.

Tasco made note of this issue 27 years ago when she testified before a commission considering changes to the City Charter. The commissioners must pledge allegiance to the parties to win elections and keep their jobs. That "tends to make them more sensitive and more responsive to the needs of the political structure as opposed to the public," she said.

Officials may finally be listening to Tasco. The Committee of Seventy, which has long advocated professionalization of the commissioners, has been working with City Council members to get a reform bill introduced.

The reform will have to insulate the new office from partisan influence. New York, Chicago, and Pittsburgh's Allegheny County employ part-time, politically balanced boards to oversee election agencies run by professionals.

Philadelphia ought to let go of this artifact. Council should put a charter change on the November ballot and allow voters to decide whether the city's elections can be run more efficiently and professionally.