Monday, September 1, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

A to-do list for city commissioners

The Committee of Seventy today emailed a list of goals for newly-elected City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer to get cracking on.

A to-do list for city commissioners

The Committee of Seventy today emailed a list of goals for newly-elected City Commissioners Al Schmidt and Stephanie Singer to get cracking on.

The government watchdog group urged Schmidt, Singer and Anthony Clark, who was re-elected to the office, to improve the office's transparency and efforts to service voters of different politicals affiliations and ethnicities.

Schmidt, a Republican, and Singer, a Democrat, both campaigned successfully on a reform platform that called for dramatic changes to be made to the office.

Here's the letter, sent by Zack Stalberg, the president of the Committee of Seventy:

 

An Open Letter to the Next City Commissioners

 

Dear Commissioner Clark, Commissioner‐Elect Singer and Commissioner‐Elect Schmidt:

City voters are expecting a great deal from you.

After rejecting two City Commissioners with a combined tenure of almost a half century, the voters

have shown that they care about reforming the operations of city elections and their own voting

experience.

Pennsylvania’s presidential primary is on April 24. During this short window – starting today – you

can reward the voters’ confidence in you. Every day counts.

 

To Commissioners‐Elect Singer and Schmidt: Your campaign statements and responses to the

Committee of Seventy’s non‐partisan 2011 Reform Agenda express in unmistakable terms your

shared commitment to unprecedented openness, transparency and accountability in the City

Commissioners’ office. Now is the time to prove it you mean it.

Assumptions are that the two of you will become the working majority. If this is true, let the voters

know now who will chair the City Commissioners. And make it clear from the outset that there are

three Commissioners in office, not just one.

 

To Commissioner Clark: Although you rarely spoke out during your first term, or this year’s campaign,

we urge you to share your experience and ideas for reform with your new colleagues. We also urge

you to join your new colleagues’ pledge to resign as ward leaders so that personal politics will not

drive the oversight of local elections. Now is the time to prove your leadership.

 

The non‐partisan Committee of Seventy, which champions fair elections, continues to support

eliminating the City Commissioners as an elected office. No other major city in the country has

partisan political leaders running elections, a model fundamentally at odds with the concept of

impartial elections.

Notwithstanding our position on abolishing the offices to which you have just been elected, Seventy

wants you to succeed. We will do what we can to help. And will remind you if you fail to live up to

the voters’ expectations.

Some changes, even if you start right away, will take time to unfold. But others that can happen

immediately should be set in motion before you take office in January.

 

IMMEDIATE REFORMS

 

1. PROVIDE BETTER “CUSTOMER” SERVICE

The City Commissioners have consistently failed to treat city voters as “customers” who deserve

high‐quality and comprehensive election services.

As Seventy has urged in past post‐election reports, and repeated in our 2011 Reform Agenda, the

existing culture of indifference can be swiftly reversed by:

  • • Publicizing the times and agendas for your meetings;
  • • Convening meetings in a larger room in City Hall that is welcoming to visitors;
  • • Publishing timely minutes of all meetings;
  • • Holding at least some meetings in the neighborhoods throughout the city and during more

convenient hours for working Philadelphians;

  • • Soliciting and responding to feedback from the voters about their experiences on election

day and their interactions with your office throughout the year; and

  • • Making essential elections information more widely available by collaborating with groups

throughout the city that serve distinct constituencies, particularly those for whom English is

not their primary language.

The communications gap was especially notable on November 8 for Asian‐American voters who,

according to testimony at a hearing on citywide redistricting by the President of the Asian Pacific

American Bar Association of Pennsylvania, now comprise 6.3% of the city’s population, an increase of

41% over the last decade.

 

Problems documented by volunteers participating in Seventy’s non‐partisan Voter Protection

Program included lack of notification about polling place changes, English‐only signage at “former”

polling places about last‐minute relocations, the absence of on‐site interpreters and confusion about

how to obtain appropriate assistance.

A national legal defense group that protects the rights of Asian Americans is exploring a possible

violation of the Voting Rights Act. You should proactively forestall potential litigation by making the

broadest possible outreach in non‐English speaking communities. This process must begin now.

Fixing the City Commissioners’ website is a step in the right direction. For years, the public has been

led to believe that this is in the works. However, even a vastly improved website will not provide

proper voter education for less than 50% of the households in North, West and South Philadelphia

that the city reports are without Internet access.

 

2. MAKE YOUR OPERATIONS FULLY TRANSPARENT

Like every other city department, the City Commissioners are obligated to present their proposed

budget during annual spring public hearings in City Council. In the past, the

hearings have been perfunctory at best, with City Commissioners offering and being asked to provide

very little information.

 

Because your office has been free to operate with a bad combination of autonomy and anonymity, it

continues to be perceived as a bastion of patronage and nepotism. During your first budget hearing

this spring, you should set an entirely new tone of leadership by telling City Council – and the taxpaying

public – precisely how their dollars are being spent. This should at least include a full listing of

civil service and non‐civil service personnel, the jobs they perform and the efforts you are making to

contain spending and cut costs.

You should do your part to contain costs. The City Commissioners have been the only elected officials

who have refused salary cuts during recent tough economic times. This sends a very bad message to

city residents struggling with high unemployment and reduced savings.

 

3. BEGIN TO INCREASE VOTER TURNOUT

Low voter turnout is a national problem, not just a Philadelphia problem. This will not change

overnight. But, with increased interest during a presidential election year, you have a chance to make

great strides towards advancing a key aspect of the City Commissioners’ mission: encouraging all

Philadelphians to register and vote.

 

The deadline for voting in Pennsylvania’s April 24, 2012 presidential primary election is March 26,

2012 – less than three months after you take office. You should begin now to actively seek out

partners throughout the city – both inside and outside of government – which have members or

clients who are eligible to vote and are capable of mounting get out the vote efforts on Election Day.

Your leadership in this initiative could present a model of non‐partisanship that would go a long way

towards shedding the politicized reputation of your office.

LONGER‐TERM REFORMS

 

1. IMPROVE POLLING PLACE STAFFING

There are 8,240 individuals needed to cover Philadelphia’s 1,684 divisions: 5,052 elected and 3,368

appointed. The Pennsylvania Election Code requires all of them to live within the election division

they serve.

This requirement creates a problem every election day. On November 8, numerous polling places

were without a full complement of polling place officials. Seventy heard repeated complaints about

difficulties in finding people to serve for the entire 13‐hour Election Day. In many voting divisions, it

can find Republicans to serve roles reserved for the minority party in this

overwhelmingly Democratic town.

 

Stephanie Singer and Al Schmidt have said that better recruitment strategies and increased civic

education will obviate the need to relax the polling place officials’ residency requirement. We are not

convinced that this will happen – and furthermore are not persuaded that this even makes sense, at

least for the two non‐elected officials whose jobs are purely administrative: Clerk and Machine

Inspector.

You can markedly improve the current process by:

  • • Encouraging citizens of both parties – through public service announcements and

community outreach – to seek one of the three elected or two appointed positions instead

of relying on ward leaders and committeepeople.

  • • Maintaining a public database of individuals who have served on previous Election Boards

and can be contacted well in advance of an election to work at the polls.

  • • Partnering with the School District of Philadelphia and non‐public high schools to recruit

exemplary high school seniors to serve as clerks or machine inspectors, as permitted by the

Pennsylvania Election Code.

  • • Following‐up with individuals who indicate on new voter registration forms that they are

interested in serving as poll workers on Election Day.

 

2. REQUIRE TRAINING FOR ALL POLLING PLACE OFFICIALS.

The City Commissioners offer training sessions for polling place officials, but attendance is not

compulsory, especially for officials who have worked the polls for many years. There are no

consequences for failing to attend.

 

On November 8, Seventy was alerted to various instances where inaccurate information was given by

polling place officials. These involved misunderstandings about the proper use of

provisional ballots, voter identifications requirements and the ability of all voters to select candidates

not within their own political party.

You should require mandatory training sessions for polling place officials, at least every other year for

repeat workers. Trainings should be made available online for those with internet access; those

without internet access should be offered in‐person training sessions at convenient locations across

the city.

 

You should also revise the “Guide for Election Officers in Philadelphia County” that is distributed to

all polling places. This densely worded document in a newspaper format should be replaced with an

easy‐to‐use, indexed manual that can be downloaded from the Commissioners’ website.

As the overseers of elections in Pennsylvania’s largest city, you can also play a leading role in the

debate on issues that impact voters across the Commonwealth.

 

Largely provoked by the upcoming presidential election, fierce battles on voting rights are happening

around the country. Pennsylvania is among them.

Carol Aichele, Governor Corbett’s Secretary of State in charge of elections, has promised aggressive

efforts to combat voter fraud both at the polls and through absentee ballots. A bill has been passed

by the state House, and is pending in the state Senate, to require voters to present governmentissued

photo identification every single time they go to vote. If passed by the Senate, Governor

Corbett will sign it.

 

According to national studies, this major change from the current law would impact many

Philadelphians, notably individuals in low‐income areas and minority groups who national studies

have shown are more likely to be without an acceptable identification (a driver’s license or U.S.

passport).

Both Stephanie Singer and Al Schmidt have publicly stated their concerns with the voter ID

legislation, in Schmidt’s case with its cost and implementation. They should take their concerns to

Harrisburg on this, and on other issues relating to access to voting, alternative voting options and

other bills that are pending in the state legislature.

 

None of the reforms we have recommended are particularly ambitious. Most have been raised

before, not only by Seventy, but during this year’s campaigns.

But getting them done will require far greater energy and effort than Philadelphians have come to

expect from their City Commissioners.

The voters have given you the reform mandate you need.

It’s up to you to act on it.

 

Best regards,

Zachary Stalberg

President and CEO

About this blog
Chris Brennan, a native Philadelphian and graduate of Temple University, joined the Daily News in 1999. He has written about SEPTA, the Philadelphia School District, the legalization of casino gambling, state government, the mayor, the governor, City Council and political campaigns. E-mail tips to brennac@phillynews.com
 Follow Chris on Twitter

Jenny DeHuff is a 2005 graduate of the University of Rhode Island, where she cut her teeth in journalism. A South Philly transplant from New England, she joined the Daily News City Hall Bureau in 2013. For the past several years, she has worked as an investigative reporter exposing corruption in suburban politics, covering sometimes ghastly criminal court cases and following the people’s money and how its spent. In addition to being a dogged news hound, she enjoys reading and writing about travel, animals, Irish whiskey and aviation. E-mail tips to dehuffj@phillynews.com
 Follow Jenny on Twitter.

Sean Collins Walsh is from Bucks County and went to Northwestern University. He joined the Daily News copy desk in 2012 and now covers the Nutter administration. Before that, he interned at papers including The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News and The Seattle Times. E-mail tips to walshSE@phillynews.com
 Follow Sean on Twitter

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