The people who run our elections seem to be in hiding.
It’s been a rough year for city commissioners. Margaret Tartaglione, Anthony Clark and Joseph Duda are the officers paid to administer Philadelphia’s election systems, and who happen to be elected officials themselves.
Last March, the government watchdog Committee of Seventy called for the abolishment of their positions in the colorfully named report “Needless Jobs: Why Six Elected City Positions Should Die.”
In September, a City Controller audit found serious payroll problems within the Commissioners’ Office.
Then, in November, the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) estimated that the city could save up to $6.2 million by shuttering the Commissioners’ Office and having other city agencies absorb its duties.
Two weeks ago, Seventy released a report detailing five ways the city could improve the way it runs elections. Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out that the three commissioners—Tartaglione, Clark and Duda—are the only elected officials who haven’t given back a portion of their salaries to the city, an appreciated gesture of shared sacrifice during an era of budget cuts and tax hikes.
Smelling blood, other blogs and publications are starting to pile on. So naturally, we called up the commissioners for comment, figuring they would want to defend their performance.
Comment we did not receive. Tartaglione was unavailable, while Clark and Duda did not return phone calls. The only person we were able to reach was Deputy Commissioner Fred Voigt, who declined to speak on any of the issues at hand.
Now, government officials not returning reporters’ calls isn’t unusual per se, but what stands out in this case is that the commissioners almost never engage with the press. Or the public. Or reform groups. They spurned requests to participate in or respond to any of Seventy’s reports. They also refused to respond to the Controller’s findings.
All we get is silence. Stonewalling. Pay no attention to the commissioners behind the curtain.
Which is troubling because some of the accusations made against the office are extremely disturbing.
“They have a certain narrow view of what their responsibilities are and beyond that don’t take any steps to make it easier for the public to vote or understand elections,” says Jon David, director of voter services for the Committee of Seventy.
In brief, Seventy’s reform suggestions trash the entire election system for being out of date, prone to electioneering and understaffed by poorly trained officials.
The website is devoid of useful information and the commissioners resist any suggestions to put election results up online in any timely manner.
The one time the commissioners are forced to deal with public comments—during meetings held in the run-up to elections—they don’t advertise when the meetings are or what topics they will cover. Nor do they post minutes afterward.
“It’s not like they ever say anything that in any way indicates that people are welcome,” says Ellen Kaplan, Committee of Seventy’s vice president and policy director.
And the few who do attend are met with a hostile reception.
“You would not believe the way people are treated there. Everything from disparaging remarks about whatever issue they are coming in to talk about to name calling,” Kaplan says.
Tartaglione runs the meetings while Clark and Duda mostly stay silent, David says. “You really wonder what are we paying them for.”
Their alleged rudeness aside, ask yourself if partisan elected officials can be trusted to run fair elections in the first place. All three commissioners are ward leaders, by the way; Tartaglione and Clark are Democrats, Duda a Republican.