City elections chief set to cash in on DROP

Signe Wilkinson 01/08/16

Hours after he was reelected chairman of the board that runs Philadelphia's elections, City Commissioner Anthony Clark took steps Wednesday to cash in big.

Clark, who has been criticized for not voting in years past, went to the city pension board and submitted his application for the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan, better known as DROP.

The city's top pension official, Fran Bielli, said signing up for DROP means Clark, 56, stands to receive an estimated lump-sum payout of $495,000 plus interest if he retires on Dec. 31, 2019, when his latest term as commissioner ends.

"That's the truth. That's all I'm going say," Clark said Thursday when asked about having signed up for DROP and the amount he would be eligible to receive.

That amount is thanks in part to his added pay as chairman of the election board. He earns $138,612 from the taxpayers; the other two commissioners earn $129,373 each.

Clark vowed not to exploit a loophole that has allowed city employees to retire for as little as a day, take the DROP payout, and return to work.

"I plan to retire, retire," he said. "It's not easy. My blood pressure is high. When you grow up with gangs and guys shooting at you and you survive, it's a lot."

Word of his signing on for DROP drew a swift rebuke from the new mayor. "It's a slap in the face to all Philadelphians," Mayor Kenney said Thursday night through spokeswoman Lauren Hitt, "especially all our city workers who show up and do their jobs well every day."

Clark has been an infrequent presence in the commissioners' City Hall offices; he says he does much of his job from elsewhere. Kenney said Wednesday that he recently urged Clark to show up more because his absence "makes us all look bad."

An official of a civic watchdog group reacted much like the mayor to the DROP news. "This is an utterly disgraceful development," Pat Christmas, policy analyst for the Committee of Seventy, wrote in an email. "When you consider that [Clark] has already collected more than one million dollars in wages and benefits since 2007 and stands to collect another half-million from this program - all for a job he neglects to show up for - it is a slap in the face to Philadelphia taxpayers."

A day after being reelected chairman with the support of two commissioners - himself and the board's sole Republican, Al Schmidt - Clark was not in his office Thursday. He said he had to deal with car problems.

Clark said he does not use email and has no city-issued cellphone, but uses his personal phone to check in with his staff. He also reiterated his defense of working away from the office, saying, "As an elected official, you get called to do different things. You're not just sitting at the desk. This is a world of technology; I'm always in communication."

Clark, a Democratic ward leader who was first elected a commissioner in 2007, came in for criticism in late 2014 when Philadelphia City Paper revealed that he had not voted in any city election since 2012. He voted in November 2014 and in two elections since, while missing last year's special election for a state representative seat in his Strawberry Mansion district.

He was also hit with a $4,000 fine by the city Board of Ethics in June for his effort to secure a raise for his brother, a commissioners' employee.

Newcomer Lisa Deeley, a Democrat, had been seen as likely to be named to replace Clark as chairman. But when Wednesday's board meeting was called to order, Schmidt said he wanted "continuity" atop the city's $9.6 million, 98-employee election bureaucracy, especially in a presidential election year.

"It's for those reasons that I nominate Anthony Clark as chair," Schmidt said. Clark, running the meeting, seconded the motion and both voted "aye," while Deeley was silent.

Clark thus was reelected chairman - and hours later went to the pension board office to sign his DROP paperwork.

DROP allows city employees to pick a retirement date up to four years in advance, then accumulate pension payments in an interest-bearing account while still earning a salary. They collect a lump sum on retirement. For Clark, that is an estimated $495,000 plus annual interest that fluctuates depending on Treasury bond rates, said Bielli, executive director of the Board of Pensions and Retirement.

DROP was created in 1999 as an incentive to persuade valued city employees nearing retirement to stay four more years. It became controversial when elected officials signed on and took big payouts; analysts have called DROP a drain on the city's severely underfunded pension system. Mayors John F. Street and Michael A. Nutter tried to end the program but failed.

In 2010, City Council passed legislation that barred elected officials from participating, but grandfathered in those already holding elective office, so they could still take advantage of DROP if they wished. That's what Clark is doing.

When he was first elected city commissioner, fellow Democrat Margaret Tartaglione still headed the board. "I watched her," Clark said Wednesday, adding that he learned from seeing what she did as chairwoman.

In 2011, voters turned away Tartaglione, in part because she enrolled in DROP before seeking reelection. Political opponents slammed her for having taken home $288,000 as her lump-sum payment at the beginning of her last term in office, in 2008.

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