BY JOE SHAHEELI/ Two down, three to go. Should those goals be met, who will become the next target of the Committee of 70? Or maybe its President may decide to show voters how things should be done by running for Mayor, should his funding run out.
This unelected, private official has become a major player in shaping Philadelphia’s governance. He spearheaded and helped engineer the campaign to wrest control of real-estate assessments from the Board of Revision of Taxes and helped eliminate the Clerk of Quarter Sessions row office. He caused a meltdown in the latter office, resulting in the resignation of Vivian Miller as its Clerk.
They were easy targets. One was made so by news events that showed the influence of a State Senator on some of the Board of Revision of Taxes’ sitting members; the other by the fact the Clerk had failed to collect allegedly millions of dollars in forfeited bail money.
But Miller’s meager staff couldn’t collect if they wanted to. Most of the bail jumpers were and, if still living, are fugitives. Some no doubt carry arms even to this day. The Clerk had no power to coordinate the Courts, the Police, and the other elements within the criminal-justice system that have the capacity to seek and flush out defendants who fail to show for court hearings.
Now this President has fixed bull’s-eyes on the City Commissioners, the Sheriff’s Office and the Register of Wills.
He’s engineering the same kind of campaign that helped him win first two. His plan is simple: Plant as much material in the daily press knocking his targets, true or not. Present only facts that make his cause look good, and then rely on a host of other “good-government types” to barrage the dailies and weeklies with similar articles.
Ask Zachary Stalberg, the Committee of 70’s president and its chief executive officer, and he will admit going after all five of these City departments.
His only response, he repeats over and over again to anyone questioning his motives, is, “We are looking for professionalism, government departments to run more efficiently and with less favoritism.”
His key pitch to those who he wishes to woo is, “We can save money and do it better without those who now hold those offices.”
Asked how much money can be saved by bagging each office in particular, the answers never amount to much. But at a time when some of this City’s elected officials have taken voluntary pay cuts to show they understand the budget shortfalls, any dollar saved sounds great. Indisputable.
Mere claims aside, though, neither Stalberg, nor the other members of his staff, nor his Board have the necessary experience to fully understand the nuances that go into the hundreds of daily decisions made by the elected officers who lead those departments.
So questions arise. Is he truly a champion of the voters, or has his drive to marshal public opinion against his pet peeves moved the Committee of 70 far from what it was planned to be, when it began as an interested handful of committed civic leaders?
“Today, we are so many more,” proudly proclaims the Committee’s webpage history. “Our diverse volunteer leaders hail from prominent businesses, law firms, and nonprofit organizations. They give their time, expertise, and influence to promote political integrity and better services for citizens.
“Seventy works effectively because of everyone involved, from the leaders – the clout they bring and the doors they open – to the people at the grass roots. Citizens from every walk of life give 70’s voice its pragmatic, democratic power when they volunteer and vote.”
Claiming to be a crusader for ethics reforms, the Committee of 70 sports a mantle of purity in order to give it a stronger voice in the more-demanding arena of policy analysis, especially when it cries, “In these tough times, we urge reforms that will put tax dollars to better use.”
Stalberg’s predecessor was Fred Voigt, whose top salary then was $110,000. Fred had a meager staff and an even more-meager budget. But every budding committeeperson or candidate, as well as the voters, generally understood when his volunteers showed up at problem polling places they would be asking questions that could not be dodged, knowing somewhere down the line, 70 could have the District Attorney’s office dish out a subpoena on a criminal charge of violating an election code.
Under Voigt, the Committee of 70 kept Philadelphia elections relatively clean, and generally worked hand in hand with the Commissioners on machine and other Election Day problems.
When he replaced Voigt in 2005, Stalberg broadened its mission to materially impact politics and government in Philadelphia. That sounded better than just working to keep election days free from fraud and snafus. He moved to attract big donors – and succeeded.
The 2008 filing of his nonprofit shows it took in donations of $1,185,222. His salary rewarded his acumen. His Board approved his pay for that year at $248,733 while his chief assistant Ellen Mattleman Kaplan – his vice president and policy director – got $115,115 for the same year.
Seventy’s expenses for the same calendar year came to $1,060,798, with its “website, morning after Election and Election Day activities, and Consulting” accounting for over $170,000.
Stalberg’s knowledge of government came through his long career as a journalist, ending with his days as editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. To his credit, the Daily News copped two Pulitzers under his aegis, winning the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 2005 Leadership Award.
As head of the Committee of 70, he deserves credit for getting Philadelphia voters to approve two major ethics reforms by overwhelming margins. That was a “motherhood effort”, hailed by everyone.
But despite his training and understanding of government, he still does not realize the necessity to keep the offices he is targeting independent, controlled by officials elected directly by voters. Stalberg’s vision is of a city where all decisions lie in the grip of one person, the Mayor.
Several years back, the County Commissioners of Philadelphia were changed from a County function to one belonging to the City. They became a legal line department, with the overwhelming majority of their employees passing civil-service examinations to remain employed.
Every decision made by that Department is in accord with City rules and responsibilities. Retained were the three City Commissioners elected by the voters, with minority representation guaranteed for one of the seats. The three are vested with the full responsibilities of insuring everyone eligible has a right to vote and providing them with nearby polling places, as many as possible with handicapped accessibility.
They function within a budget, the size of which is mandated by State and Federal election laws, which must be approved by the City Council and signed by the Mayor.
But that’s not enough Mayoral control for Stalberg. He wants the Mayor be able to hire and fire the persons who are running his own election for office.
None of the three row offices in the sights of the Committee of 70 – the City Commissioners, the Register of Wills, and the Sheriff’s Office – can be turned over to private contractors, nor can they be eliminated, since Federal and State law demand their existence. Each has a mandate, very complex, and managed extremely well by their leadership and administrative staffs.
In the case of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, had Vivian Miller stood up to the pressures created by the flood of bad publicity heaped on her office, that office would have remained viable as well, save for the fact several years back it became an appendage of the 1st Judicial Dist.
Her problem, crowed the Committee of 70, was she did not collect millions of dollars from bail jumpers. But it was the courts that created this fiasco when they – in the interest of “reform” – placed all bail responsibilities in the hands of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Defendants only had to put up 10% of what was imposed on them for bail. As a consequence, the courts became a laughingstock among criminals.
The Clerk was not equipped with the necessary computers to try to track down bail jumpers or funded for the type of army needed to seek them out. Hence the impossibility of her task.
At last, this week, the 1st Dist. has launched a campaign to make a serious stab at regaining the lost bail. It will be aided by modern tracking methods, while belatedly beginning the complex coordination between various departments that is the only route to true efficiency gains and cost savings in the criminal-justice system.
Stalberg isn’t perturbed by his lack of understanding of the law, which does not permit eliminating these offices. Each must be occupied by someone.
Each someone, furthermore, needs to be versed in the laws that circumscribe the running of elections, the keeping of legal records and the workflow of criminal justice. And, as it has been proven in other cities, an independently elected official, answerable to the voting public, is the real and only key to good government.
Neither Stalberg nor Kaplan is a lawyer. They are unsuited to critical analysis of these branches of government. They are, however, good at making good press.
What Stalberg propagandizes, the idea of saving millions, remains a fantasy. Yet he pursues his campaign with an appeal to frustrated administrators who haven’t served in any of those offices. He trusts well-meaning do-gooders to spread disinformation in the media, via radio and television interviews. We’ll reveal some of these in next week’s Public Record.