Commissioner Anthony Clark is in charge, but rarely seen

Anthony Clark was re-elected as head of the Philadelphia city commissioners Wednesday, January 6, 2016. Clark has served as chairman for the last few years but has come under scrutiny for not voting between 2011 and 2014 and for not having a visible presence in the office.

Consider the deal Anthony Clark has with his employer.

He is paid $138,612 a year. He just got his contract renewed for another four years.

A big pension check awaits him - nearly half a million dollars. Plus an estimated $10,322 check each month for life.

And he doesn't have to go to the office. He tells of working by phone - even from the far side of the world.

"When I was in Egypt, I was considered still present," he says.

What sort of employer agreed to such a deal? Philadelphia taxpayers.

Clark won his third four-year term as a city commissioner in November with 155,379 votes. On Jan. 6, he won the backing of a colleague, Commissioner Al Schmidt, to remain chairman of the three-member board that oversees elections. Schmidt's decision followed reports of Clark's not voting in several elections, run-ins with the ethics board for trying to orchestrate a raise for his brother, and a lack of presence in City Hall.

"What kind of system tolerates or rewards [that] kind of behavior?" said David Thornburgh, executive director of the civic watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

Mayor Kenney called Clark's work habits "insulting" to hardworking city employees.

Clark objects to the notion that he isn't doing his job in supervising the $9.6 million bureaucracy that employs 98 full-time workers plus thousands of part-timers who staff polling places on Election Day. He points to the election guide his office puts out annually, and the outreach he does in teaching residents how to vote. He goes into the office whenever he has an appointment, and when he isn't in, he says, he is constantly checking in with his staff.

"There are no glitches with elections," he said in one of several recent interviews. "That's how they know I am doing my job."

Actually, the extent to which Clark, 56, does his job has been sharply questioned. Thornburgh has likened him to the Invisible Man.

But none of that seemed to matter when Schmidt, the board's only Republican, renominated Clark. Schmidt, who has pushed to modernize the city's creaky election systems, wanted to keep a degree of autonomy that was unlikely if Democrat Lisa Deeley, the rookie commissioner, took the helm.

"I didn't get elected to be a potted plant," Schmidt said in an interview.

With the city a Democratic stronghold, a Republican could hardly expect to win chairmanship of the board that runs elections - especially in a presidential year. But by allowing Clark to be chairman, Schmidt is essentially the de facto chairman, according to several people who are familiar with the agency's inner workings but spoke on condition of anonymity.

"This deal," one of those people said, "was solely about Clark retaining his additional $9,000 [the extra pay for being chairman] and Schmidt retaining control of the office."

Clark said he and Schmidt, along with Deeley, would be partners in office decisions.

"Me and him agree on at least 90 percent of the time," he said of Schmidt.

'Work smart but not hard'

Clark was born and raised in North Philadelphia, the seventh of 10 children. After graduating from Franklin High School, he took a welding job. But that lasted only a year.

"When I see the guys looking like grease monkeys and their fingers were really dirty and eating their sandwiches with their hands dirty, I knew that was the kind of work I didn't want to do for the rest of my life," Clark said. "I like to work smart but not hard."

He later worked as a bus attendant for autistic children and held other jobs.

He became a Democratic committeeman in his Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, and in 1994 was named the party's 28th Ward leader. That year, Register of Wills Ronald R. Donatucci hired him as a deputy of estates and wills.

In Clark's dozen years at that job, "it was well-known he had an attendance issue," Donatucci said last week.

Today, Clark's office is decorated with photos of him with movers and shakers he's met through politics - former Mayor John F. Street, Secretary of State John Kerry, Rosa Parks.

In 2007, Clark ran for city commissioner and won. During his first year in the post, he took a six-week religious pilgrimage to the Middle East, known as a hajj. "That was me by the Nile," he said, showing off photos.

Even with a seven-hour time difference, he still checked in with the commissioners' offices, he said.

"If two commissioners had a disagreement, they could call me and I could talk to them by communication even if I was in Egypt," Clark said.

In Clark's second four-year term, his absence from the office was made a public issue by then-fellow Commissioner Stephanie Singer.

"A lot of that is rumor," Clark said, adding that "there is no proof" that he did not work.

But it is hard to learn how much he does work. The political group Philadelphia 3.0, along with two other groups and the Committee of Seventy, has tried since October via a Right to Know Law request. In reply, the city has said Clark keeps no public calendar or agenda, nor any record of his attendance; nor does he use a city-owned computer or city-issued cellphone.

His office desk is computer-free, adorned only with flowers and spread out papers and envelopes.

As an independently elected official, Clark answers to the voters - and pretty much no one else. The state Supreme Court tossed out the City Charter's recall provision when Frank Rizzo's foes tried to unseat him as mayor in the 1970s. Mayor Kenney said his office was looking into what, if any, recourse it had - but he would prefer that Clark just start showing up.

It is "insulting to people who have a job, who show up - people like Officer Hartnett - who risk their lives, struggle, suffer, walk behind a trash truck six days a week, 12 months a year, come to classrooms - you have to come to work. Period," Kenney said Friday when asked about Clark. "I've been a patronage employee my entire life and I've worked more than eight hours. It's time to come to work."

Voting czar who didn't vote

Then there is Clark's voting hiatus: As the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper first revealed, Clark voted in no elections in 2012, 2013, or spring 2014. (He blamed ill health, and this month promised The Inquirer he will vote from now on.)

The Democratic City Committee endorsed him last year for reelection.

His campaign was mostly funded through donations from political action groups and other politicians, including Kenney. (Kenney's campaign said the $1,500 he donated was for sample ballot printing in Clark's 28th Ward.)

The math was simple: With record low turnouts in the primary (27 percent) and general election (26 percent), Clark, a Democrat, cruised to victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.

It took a Republican, though, to keep him as the board's chairman.

At the commissioners' reorganization meeting Jan. 6, the GOP's Schmidt surprised some political insiders when he nominated Clark to be chairman again, instead of Deeley, a newcomer who wanted the post.

"The changes she wanted to bring . . . would've been extremely disruptive to this department in the face of a presidential election," Schmidt said, noting that Deeley saw the chairman role as being in charge of all day-to-day operations.

Deeley declined to comment, saying she didn't want to get involved in the "sniping of she said, he said."

"I'm here to work," she said.

The DROP issue

The day Clark was reelected chairman, he signed up for the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). If he stays to the end of his term, he is expected to get nearly $500,000.

Clark said he plans to invest some of that in his political consulting business - C&E Consulting, a business name he created several years ago but has not yet used, he said.

As he starts his new term as chairman, he still isn't committing to being in his office much.

"My day-to-day stuff is if people want to call me and see demonstrations of how to vote, or they want to know about the elections," he said. "That's why this is not a job where you are stuck at the desk, because you have to go out and talk about elections."

But don't email him asking for a presentation. Despite having his email listed on the City Commissioners' website, Clark said he does not use it. So, if a constituent emails him asking for help?

"That's dead," he said. "But bottom line is, This office is open for eight hours a day, 40 hours a week."

On Thursday, Clark was in the office in a gray sweat suit. He didn't have any presentations but was running around to a few appointments he described as personal. After granting an interview about his job, he was off to the gym - at 4 p.m.

cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520@InqCVargas

Staff writers Chris Hepp and Julia Terruso contributed to this article.