POLS ON THE STREET: Court Upholds City Commission

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AWARDS were issued and services offered at the City Council Veterans Resource Fair in Thomas Paine Plaza. Jean Banks received a City Council citation in honor of her dead father from Congressman Bob Brady. Photo by Wendell Douglas

In Philadelphia, all eyes (at least all that aren’t closed in sleep to the burning issues of the city they live in) were focused on the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Sadly, most voters did remain asleep.

Doubtless they will wake up again when the time comes for them to complain about a particular policy or event, misstep or crisis, in the justice system or the city administration, that offends their sensibilities. But it will be too late then. They lost their right to whine, in our opinion, when they waived their right to vote.

There is a movement afoot in Pennsylvania to cancel or reduce the power of voters to select their public officers. Judges are a familiar target; many honest people in the legal fraternity argue judges should be selected by merit – as defined by the same honest people in the legal fraternity. Laypersons, they say, should have no say in whom they are judged by. That should be exclusively the call of the lawyers, in their view.

Philadelphia city commissioners are another familiar target. Many self-defined reformers want the administration of its voting to be overseen by a nonpartisan, rather than a bipartisan, leadership – which is what we now have, by virtue of their election.

Seasoned observers are dubious. If elections are a good way to pick government leaders, they should be a good way to pick government leaders of elections.

The current arrangement, enshrined in law and worked out in practice, is that the majority Democrats get to decide how the city’s mostly-Democratic voters get to vote, while the minority Republican provides a significant brake on abuse while pitching in technical expertise. In truth, Philadelphia probably sees fewer day-to-day problems with this agency than it does with most other branches of its municipal government.

CITY COMMISSIONER Anthony Clark, front C, who doubles as Democratic 28th Ward leader, was visited by many candidates as his well-trained committee members prepared to run the election on Tuesday. Photo by Wendell Douglas

But the Committee of Seventy has long advocated abolishing the Philadelphia City Commission, a body unique to Philadelphia for historical reasons. In the 66 other counties of Pennsylvania, the county commission is the actual executive of the county. But when Philadelphia City and County merged a long time ago, City Commission wound up with largely the job of managing elections, while the mayor and city council took care of the rest of public business.

So it’s odd. But it works. Considering Philadelphia runs elections that are bigger than many nations’, its elections have seen tiny scandals at most for the last 30 years.

Now, represented by the Public Interest Law Center, Seventy is going after City Commission with a passion. It argued the commissioners must step aside from managing Tuesday’s primary because a state law appeared to kick them off any election in which there was a city-charter question, as happened last Tuesday.

Philadelphia elections of 2017 are not the same as those of 1947. Our city had a famously dishonest system then, ruled over by Republicans; and the incoming Democrats, following local culture, concentrated on redistributing the spoils.

But today’s election problems are trivial, compared to our past – as well as to the larger reform challenges of 2017. There are many larger candidates for close public scrutiny than this modestly funded (short of $10 million) agency, which must muster up to 10,000 short-term, low-paid citizens to carry out an arduous civic duty for peanuts.

It’s time for progressives to quit hallucinating about the “machine” and focus instead on the need to pay ordinary citizens enough to wangle a day off from their everyday-survival pay to run an election for their neighbors. Do they argue that every potential political activist in America’s poorest big city should work a 12-hour day in their neighborhood polls for free? This may suit idealistic professionals who control their own time, but it’s no way to run a grassroots government in working-class communities. Time is money for humble civic activists like these.

COUNCILWOMAN Blondell Reynolds Brown hosted an old-school party evening which brought together her staff members, old and young, at the View. This is an annual event. Photo by Wendell Douglas

Seventy called for the County Commissioners to recuse themselves in the May 2017 election. “It’s better to err on the side of caution,” said Benjamin Geffen, a PILC staff attorney.

This was an impractical suggestion, particularly for an election already well underway. It would make more sense to address the next scheduled election now, allowing time to raise and discuss the issues.

But Deputy City Solicitor Benjamin Field retorted the city commissioners didn’t draft the ballot questions and thus are neutral on them. To remove the commissioners from above, he said, would “undermine a fair and well-run election.”

Common Pleas Court President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper heard the case and ruled in favor of the City Commission. Two different appeals, first to the Supreme Court and at the last minute to Commonwealth Court, were dismissed without an opinion.

Is Rendell Running for Shadow Mayor?

Sixteen years after Mayor Ed Rendell moved onward and upward, he seems to have developed an intense interest in governing Philadelphia again – at least by proxy.

In the past few months, he has excoriated Democratic City Committee’s methods of choosing candidates. He threw his weight behind a former mayoral employee and party outsider, Rebecca Rhynhart, in her bid to topple long-standing City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Now Rendell stands at the center of another firestorm, this one over bonuses paid out by the Democratic National Convention Host Committee, which he co-chaired. Nearly $1 million went to its workers for an effort that was universally acclaimed as a credit to the city.

But it drew a host of critics, from Gov. Tom Wolf on down, who argued the money should have gone directly to city government instead. Now Auditor General Gene DePasquale has stated he intends to do an audit of Rendell’s host committee.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the end result is a team of Philly-based operatives who owe much to Rendell in present time – as well as a growing crew of political leaders who show an interest in reining him in.

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