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Ringside: Dirty tricks in high-level places

An election aide's admission raises disturbing points.

Elections in Philadelphia have long been messy affairs where dead people have been known to vote, street money influences turnout, and fights erupt at polling places.

But who knew dirty tricks were also being carried out by a high-level official inside the city agency in charge of conducting nonpartisan elections?

Renee Tartaglione, the former chief deputy of the elections office, funneled tens of thousands of dollars from the Democratic City Committee to the wards run by her mother and then-jailed husband, while also distributing bogus sample ballots designed to mislead voters who wanted to support her husband's political enemy, State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.).

Nixon's plumbers had nothing on Tartaglione.

She was not some rogue employee. Her mother, Marge, is the chairwoman and de facto boss of the City Commissioners Office. Renee was one of Marge's hires and spent 26 years working for mom. After stepping down last month amid an Ethics Board probe, Renee began collecting a city pension of $4,200 a month.

Meanwhile, Marge claims the scandal - in which her daughter admitted to numerous violations - has no effect on the integrity and oversight of her office. "We run a clean house here," she said with a straight face.

When a reporter from Philadelphia Weekly asked how the office could guarantee fair elections, Marge said: "You say that [we are] corrupt and I'll jump over this table and punch you out."

Real classy, hon.

Clean or not, the City Commissioners Office is a relic in need of reform or replacement.

For starters, there is no reason elected officials should oversee the agency in charge of elections and voter registration. The arrangement poses an inherent conflict. Not to mention, the three elected commissioners are all ward leaders, steeped in the practice of machine politics.

It gets better. To avoid any conflicts, the three commissioners step away from their duties in the year they are up for election. Retired judges are brought in to take their place.

Of course, the commissioners still collect their six-figure salaries. That means one out of every four years they effectively get a sabbatical.

Only in Philadelphia.

In fact, no other big city in the country has elected officials overseeing elections. Most cities hire professionals.

A report last year by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) said the city could save as much as $15 million a year by eliminating the so-called elected row offices that include the city commissioners, the sheriff, and register of wills.

The PICA report found the City Commissioners Office spent an average of twice as much on election administration as the other counties in the state.

An audit by the City Controller highlighted numerous problems that raised questions about the financial and managerial oversight of the office.

The audit found overpayments to election officers, reimbursement for ineligible expenses, failure to maintain attendance records for noncivil service employees, and several key officials who failed to file financial-disclosure forms as required by the state.

The cleaning lady must have been away when the auditors were probing Marge's house.

The Committee of Seventy, the watchdog group that monitors elections, has been critical of the agency's failure to modernize and use technology to maintain voter information and increase turnout.

"You'd at least like to think elections are run honestly and people are encouraged to vote," said Zack Stalberg, the head of the Committee of Seventy.

Of course, like most everything else at City Hall, any effort to improve the election process or save tax dollars is met with resistance. The truth is the City Commissioners Office is run just the way the Democratic Party wants it run.

That may partly explain why top elected officials have been so muted in response to Renee Tartaglione's election shenanigans.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the city's Democratic Party, declined to comment on the scandal. Can't upset Marge.

Mayor Nutter said through his spokesman that her behavior was "obviously wrong" and he didn't "condone" it.


Nutter has not endorsed eliminating the elected commissioner posts, but he said it should be studied.

Sounds like a punt.

It's up to City Council to pass legislation to get rid of the commissioners, and voters would have to approve a change in the City Charter.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Council to act.

Meanwhile, Marge Tartaglione plans to run for reelection next year. She was first elected in 1975, when leisure suits were in style, gasoline was 44 cents a gallon, and the hit summer movie was Jaws.

As for any retirement plans, Tartaglione, 77, already did that a couple of years back. She retired for one day in order to collect her DROP check, which was almost $300,000.

It's a clean house all right. And any of you mugs who thinks otherwise is going to get a Tartaglione sandwich right in the kisser.