Philadelphia is focused on the dysfunction of the City Commission like never before.
The three-member body in charge of the city’s elections—comprised of Marge Tartaglione, Joseph Duda and Anthony Clark—has garnered a list of complaints and allegations almost as long as the collective years they’ve been in office (Tartaglione was first elected in 1975; Duda in ’95; Clark in ’07): Running a problem-plagued, expensive, out-of-date election system; allegedly allowing or tacitly encouraging electioneering within polling places; failing to find an adequate number of election judges; nepotism; getting paid for their entire four-year term even though they only work for three because they have to sit out elections when they are candidates themselves; failing to provide election results on their web site; failing to provide useful information about who and what is up for polling before the elections; and ignoring any and all feedback and calls for reform.
Election watchdog Committee of Seventy suggested a series of fixes to correct the Commission, including better enforcement of an electioneering ban and more attention paid to selecting election judges. And the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) suggests the city could save up to $6.2 million by eliminating the elected commissioner positions altogether, instead professionalizing the Commission with appointees. Seventy agrees, although no one is quite sure how a new Commission would look.
“What this needs is a careful study on the front end on how it’s done in other cities and what’s the best way to professionalize it,” Seventy CEO Zack Stalberg says. “There needs to be some system with a nominating panel and some concern with minority parties.”
Until that happens, though, there are a few candidates lining up to take on the entrenched commissioners.
Al Schmidt, the Republican 38th ward leader, previously worked for the federal Government Accountability Office and more recently was an adviser to the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Last month, Schmidt, 39, unveiled a stack of documents that show a number of public officials using public resources for their own campaigns, which is prohibited political activity. All of which, Schmidt says, passed right under the current commissioners’ noses.
Also ready to campaign is Stephanie Singer, Democratic 8th ward leader. Singer, 46, is a data strategist for Athenian Properties, a real-estate services company based in Center City. Fed up with the Commission’s refusal to post any useful information online, Singer created her own website to display election results, campaignscientific.com. She also sued the Commission to get results up in a more timely manner. Singer hasn’t officially declared yet but says it’s “pretty darn likely” that she’ll run.
And at 24, Ivy Staten is a fresh contender on the Democratic side (not even a ward leader!), although she does have family political cred—her uncle is the former business manager of the Laborers Local 332. Staten is the founder of the local nonprofit Mature Cradle, which runs education programs for both youth and seniors, and she also started the “Vote Your It” initiative to encourage voter registration and education.
Then there are rumors that Chris Vogler, the Republican 55th ward leader and Philadelphia Parking Authority functionary, will run. He did not respond to request to comment.
Presumably, Tartaglione, Duda and Clark are all running for re-election, although they have ignored questions about their intentions. The primaries are in May, and two candidates from the Democratic and Republican party will advance to the generals in November. From there, the top three vote-getters advance to office. Vying to take those three spots, Singer, Schmidt and Staten all gave their ideas about what needs fixing in the Commission:
What needs to be changed?
Singer: The office is just doing a fraction of the job it needs to do. It’s not just a job of running elections, it’s a job of encouraging people to vote and letting people know what the elections are about.
Schmidt: [Election board members] are paid $95. When you break it down to the number of hours they work on election day, it’s well below minimum wage. Well, it gets harder and harder every year to recruit people to sit on those boards. It’s the same thing again and again. And [the commissioners’] response is, we’ll get to this when we have more time. Then it never happens and we’re up at the next election. It’s like Groundhog Day.
Staten: Ultimately, the office oversees the elections and voter registration. One of the primary focuses needs to be to reform the bridge between the office and community and to educate the voters and citizens of Philadelphia a little better.
How can the Commission be improved?
Singer: Things like working with the water department so water bills have little fliers in them to remind people to register and remind people to vote. Working with the Department of Technology to put up a real website that’s a presence in the city.
Schmidt: The only way you can do it is through oversight. I think that’s one thing right to know requests allow. Frankly, poll watchers are a part of that oversight to make sure that there isn’t electioneering in polling places on election day.
Staten: There should be workshops, seminars, reaching out to senior citizens to make sure they’re informed voters. Going to schools to say these are the positions up for election—each election is different offices. Not only that but reaching out to the younger generation, so they are already accustomed to the voting process before they turn 18.
What about the role of politics within the office?