COMMITTEE OF 70: Who Are Its Winners And Losers?

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BY JOE SHAHEELI/ Birds of a feather flock together! That proverb has been an axiom to every past generation. So what makes the Committee of 70 believe itself to be the only exception?
Under its current President Zachary Stalberg, Committee of 70 has gone from its original mission of keeping election irregularities to a minimum on Election Day to becoming a champion for people who would stand the most to gain from its new goal: eliminating the City’s row offices.
He’s targeted four of them: Register of Wills, City Commissioners, Sheriff and Clerk of Quarter Sessions. All perform duties related to a county government. Philadelphia is a city and also one of Pennsylvania’s counties.
Stalberg scored an early victory with the last of these, simply because the Courts long ago had moved and succeeded in taking jurisdiction over the office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Its director Vivian Miller resigned under pressure of bad press, which focused on her department’s inability to collect bail money forfeited by court defendants who jumped bail.
Back when, before Philadelphians elected Miller to the post of Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the City had eliminated bail bondsmen, who had long requested from defendants 10% of the bail required of them by the court in arraignments. In return, they guaranteed the courts their defendant would show up for their court trial or they would forfeit the full bond, whatever the bail set. Bail bondsmen had the means and the motive to track down bail skippers. They knew how to get their money. This is the normal way of handling the bail business in most cities.
Philadelphia replaced bail bondsmen with the Clerk of Quarter Sessions – but completely neglected to equip this office, whose primary mission had always been record-keeping, with the tools for its new trade. It quickly became obvious to criminal defendants their freedom was worth more than the 10% they turned over to the Clerk of Quarter Sessions.
The Clerk of Quarter Sessions had neither the manpower nor the cyber-equipment to determine who needed to be chased to get the bail that had been set and was now forfeited to the Courts. And the City had few other resources with which  to chase down bail jumpers. For the majority of those defendants, it was a cheap way for many of them to escape the court sentences they knew would be coming their way.
What now makes the remaining row offices into impediments to “good government”? All are well run; all have a minimal number of employees; all have records of excellence, especially when compared to similar agencies in other jurisdictions.
Simple, say some! To eliminate those offices from the City Charter would, according to the Committee of 70, and its coterie of followers (including some quasi-government agencies), save a couple million dollars.
Stalberg, with an excellent resumé as former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, which earned journalistic awards under his helm, well understands the publicity game. It calls for finding a “hook” to entice the press and others to publish stories or fund a mission for him.
Stalberg put this stratagem to good use. “Eliminating these offices will save money” became a successful fundraising catchphrase. That did attract bankers, lawyers and others. His fundraising efforts succeeded in netting $1,259,817 in 2007 and $1,379,480 in 2008.
Under his leadership, the Committee of 70 has risen from a small Election Day watchdog group with a budget under $200,000 donated by good-government proponents, to a multi-million-dollar nonprofit with handsome salaries for at least two of its executives.
But who truly stands to gain from the elimination of these offices?
After taking over the duties of the row offices, the City administration would immediately discover it had opened a Pandora’s box. It might need more employees than those now used by by row offices. Much of the expertise those offices have accumulated over the years could easily be lost. So what is the good City administration to do, except go to the private sector and deal?
Private-sector players  are already anticipating windfalls from such contracts. There is little doubt some of those contract bids will be submitted by some of the firms donating heavily to  Stalberg.
Nowhere has Stalberg explained exactly how staffing levels will be changed by eliminating the row offices. He has been careful, in his news releases, not to note the preponderance of the employees   in two of those offices — the City Commissioners and the Sheriff — already have civil-service status. They can’t be furloughed out.
The City will need to put in place in each of these agencies its own appointees to replace those elected by the people. These new executives, in turn, will need aides of all sorts. Stalberg doesn’t know, nor does he probably care, if the City will have to add more employees than it can presently afford.
Who gains the most? Not the administration, whose chronic budget needs will increase noticeably.
Who stands to lose the most? The voters of this city.They will lose complete control over three government offices that impact greatly on their lives.
Now a look at the other birds who are part of the Committee of 70 flock. Many are luminaries, if not to the voters, but to those who flit about the Philadelphia business world.
The Committee of 70’s Board of Directors, in 2008 and 09, was chaired by Howard L. Myers, Esq., of the prestigious law firm of Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius LLP. Vice Chair is Howard B. Flaxman, Esq., of one of the city’s the top law firms, Fox, Rothschild, LLP. Its Board Secretary was Dianne L. Semingson, president of DLS International, and Treasurer in 2008 was Michael Nadol, managing director of Strategic Consulting.
The “Executive Committee”, in the 2008 financial report, included executives from almost a dozen law firms and at least two banks, several of which can easily fill some of the tasks handled by the row offices.
Earlier this month, five new members were elected to 70’s Board of Directors. They include a banker, Evelyn Smalls, president of United Bank of Philadelphia; a real-estate magnate, Brad Molotsky, executive VP and general counsel of Brandywine Realty Trust in Radnor; a Big Pharma executive, Fritz Bittenbender of Cephalon, Inc.; the top dog at Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Francis McGorry; and Cheyney University Dean Barbara Simmons.
Although expanding the Mayoral administration with a row-office takeover may wind up busting future Mayors’ budgets, it will make Mayors feel good in other ways.That may explain why Mayor Michael Nutter has come down on the big-business side of the good-government equation:  He sees a spread of his power base by the elimination of these offices. He knows he gets to decide if he keeps the departments intact, or if he should issue contracts to absorb the duties now handled by these offices’ staffs.
On the other side of that equation are the losers: the voters of this city, who continue to discover their role in government is being quietly narrowed down and even squeezed out — all in the name of “good government”.

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