Friction among city commissioners

A new set of city commissioners – Stephanie Singer, Anthony Clark and Al Schmidt – has been running Philadelphia’s election machinery for the past five months, delivering on campaign promises of more transparency and efficiency.

They’ve ended a double-dipping practice that allowed hundreds of election-day workers to do two jobs at once, collecting double and sometimes triple pay. They’ve opened up temporary jobs to anyone who wants to apply, not just those who submit their names through ward leaders and party organizations.

They’re investigating some voting irregularities in past years, where the official vote counts are higher than the number of people who signed in at the polls. They’ve invited the city’s inspector general to investigate any tips involving misbehavior in the commissioners’ offices.

And the commissioners’ website – for years an empty shell with virtually no useful information – now has links to a broad array of election material, from political calendars and campaign finance rules to ward maps, voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, past election results and advice on the state’s new voter ID law.

Relying on its experienced civil service staff, the new commissioners survived their first election last month with no significant problems.

But there’s friction between the three commissioners.

The two Democrats, Singer and Clark, were rivals last year to chair the agency, and their relationship has not improved. At one weekly meeting, Clark complained that he hadn’t been informed of one agenda item and Singer openly wondered how she might keep him informed, since he so rarely showed up at his City Hall office.

In private, Singer and Clark are said to be openly hostile.

“There are three commissioners and you can’t go ahead without two of us,” Clark said. Sometimes, he said, Singer “just wants to, I guess, dictate.”

Schmidt, the Republican whose swing vote gave the chairmanship to Singer, is still a reliable ally on the reform issues they both embraced while campaigning.

But like Clark, Schmidt complains that Singer occasionally claims more authority as chairman — the power to schedule meetings, or make personnel decisions – than the other commissioners are willing to concede.

“All three offices should play equally active roles,” Schmidt said. “I wasn’t elected to be a potted plant.”

Over opposition from Schmidt and Clark, Singer scheduled a commissioners’ meeting last Wednesday with two items on the agenda – directing staff to develop programs to explain the new voter ID requirements to both the public and the election-day officials who will have to apply voter ID in November.

“We didn’t think the meeting was necessary,” Schmidt said. He and Clark decided not to attend, forcing Singer to adjourn the meeting for lack of a quorum.

“People have differences of opinion all the time,” Singer said. “…Resolving them is part of the process of governing collaboratively. I’m holding meetings because there is a lot of work that the commission has to do and a lot of things we need to do to keep the promises we made when we were running.”