Philly Democratic leader Brady calls Commissioner Anthony Clark a 'disgrace'

City Commissioners Chairman Anthony Clark during a meeting Jan. 20, 2016.

Let the record show that Wednesday's public meeting of the Philadelphia City Commissioners came and went without a word spoken about the work habits, voting record, renewed chairmanship, and half-million-dollar pension expectations of the man running the meeting, Commissioner Anthony Clark.

But within minutes of the meeting's end, a key voice that had been silent in recent days about Clark's various issues was speaking out loudly and angrily.

"He's an absolute disgrace," said U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, longtime chairman of the city's Democratic Party. "What a piece of work."

In an interview Wednesday, Brady opened up about Clark for the first time since the fellow Democrat was reelected to his $139,612-a-year job as chairman of the three commissioners, who oversee city elections. He said he had urged Clark as recently as Tuesday to step aside, "just resign as chairman and show up" for work.

Brady said Clark declined to do the former but promised to do the latter - and, indeed, was seen working in his City Hall office on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The party chief also accused Clark of backing out of a previous handshake agreement to give up the chairmanship.

Clark did not reply Wednesday to repeated requests for comment.

Though Brady has no official say over the commissioners, he has considerable unofficial sway as peacemaker, cheerleader, and enforcer for a party that controls nearly every elected office in Philadelphia - and that endorsed Clark last year.

Clark cruised to victory in both the primary and general elections, winning a third four-year term as a commissioner. On Jan. 6, he was renamed chairman of the commissioners, who oversee the city's $9.6 million election bureaucracy, thanks to a surprise move by Al Schmidt, the board's sole Republican. Schmidt nominated him despite reports of Clark's rarely being in his office, and of not voting in nearly three years of elections.

Clark, 56, has defended his record by saying that illness kept him from the polls, and that he stays in touch with staff by phone even while on personal trips to places as far-flung as Egypt. A Democratic ward leader in Strawberry Mansion, he said he often works away from the office by teaching community groups, such as ward meetings, about voting.

On Wednesday, Brady said he wasn't buying that part of Clark's defense.

"I don't know of any events he's hosted," said Brady, who is the longtime 34th Ward leader in Overbrook Park as well as party chairman. "When you go to a ward leadership meeting, it's a night meeting. I don't know of any day meetings."

Brady said that he had urged Clark to give up the chairmanship in a Tuesday-evening conversation, their first since Clark's reelection to that post, and that Clark had declined. But Brady said the commissioner did make one promise: to come to work.

Brady said Clark had promised him and the head of the Black Ward Leaders organization, Edgar "Sonny" Campbell, late last year that he would not seek the chairman's post and would support Democrat Lisa Deeley, a newly elected commissioner, to be chair.

"We said, 'You've got to do your job,' and, 'We're not going to support you for chair,' " Brady said, describing a meeting he and Campbell had with Clark following the November election.

"He went back and forth and agreed," Brady said. "He shook hands with me, he shook hands with Sonny."

Campbell gave a similar account Wednesday. He said he was tired of the negative press Clark was drawing to the commissioners' office. If Clark remained chairman, Campbell said, "we felt it would bring scrutiny to the office."

"We already lost the Clerk of Quarter Sessions as a row office," said Campbell, whose late father once held that now-abolished post. "We would like to keep this row office."

As late as Jan. 5, Brady said, all signs pointed to Deeley's becoming the chair. But the next day, at the commissioners' reorganization meeting, Schmidt nominated Clark - who seconded the motion, leaving Deeley surprised and speechless. The post pays about $9,000 more than the other commissioners earn.

Schmidt, who has pushed to modernize the agency, has said he chose Clark for the sake of "continuity" in a busy presidential election year, and because he wanted a degree of autonomy he didn't think would be possible under Deeley.

Brady called Clark's role in the decision "totally ridiculous . . . how he cut that deal with the Republicans." He said he had been trying to meet with Clark since that Jan. 6 meeting to no avail.

He said he invited Clark to sit down with him Tuesday at the Union League, but Clark, in his City Hall office in a sweatshirt and jeans, said he was not dressed appropriately. Finally, the two spoke by phone Tuesday evening.

Retelling all this, Brady still sounded upset.

"He lies to us," the congressman said, anger ringing in his voice. "He certainly should have not taken the chairman position. It's disgraceful. You've got to work in this business."

But if Brady knew Clark had a history of not being at work, why did the party endorse him last year?

"He said, 'I'm going to show up, I'm going to be a good boy' - same thing he said last night. I don't believe him," Brady said.

If this week is any guide, Clark has begun showing up more. He was in his office most of Tuesday and ran the commissioners' meeting Wednesday. It lasted under 15 minutes, with only Schmidt presenting three proposals, on temporary filling of supervisory vacancies, and revising of job specifications.

Brady said he'd asked City Controller Alan Butkovitz, another Democrat, to stop Clark's paychecks. But Butkovitz said that unless the job's requirements become part of a legal document, be it the City Charter or a code of conduct, his hands are tied.

Mayor Kenney, who last week labeled Clark's work ethic "insulting" to hardworking city employees, said through his spokeswoman that he was exploring what steps, if any, his administration can take.

"As the commissioner is an independently elected official, our legal options are very limited," spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Wednesday. "We are still pursuing them, but because of the limitations and complexity involved, it will be some time before we're prepared to make an announcement about the course of action we'll be taking."

Or, as Brady put it, "I don't know what can be done."

cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas