Latest in Anthony Clark saga: Seems the reformers missed some elections, too

Al Schmidt (pictured), one of the three city commissioners who oversee elections, pointed to records showing Committee of Seventy executive director David Thornburgh had not voted in 2013 elections.

A day after the Committee of Seventy called for replacing Philadelphia's elections board and bashed its chairman for not voting, the board's sole Republican hit back, saying the watchdog group's leaders don't practice what they preach.

He said they don't always vote.

Al Schmidt, one of the three city commissioners, who oversee elections, pointed Friday to records showing Committee of Seventy executive director David Thornburgh had not voted in the 2013 elections - and that the previous head of the civic group, Zack Stalberg, missed elections as well.

"Typical elitist hypocrisy," Schmidt called it.

Over the last few years, both Thornburgh and Stalberg have called for replacing the elected commissioners with appointed election overseers. Thornburgh has recently bashed the commissioners' chairman, Democrat Anthony Clark, for his work habits and his having missed 2½ years of voting.

Schmidt said he checked public records and found that Thornburgh, who has been leading the critics' charge against the commissioners, skipped voting in the primary and general elections of 2013.

Told of those findings, Thornburgh, a registered Republican, said Friday that he could not remember why he had not voted in the 2013 elections, which included races for city controller and district attorney.

"No one is perfect," Thornburgh said.

Schmidt - who set off the latest controversy around the election board with his Jan. 6 renomination of Clark as its $138,612 chairman - promptly seized on Thornburgh's words, saying, "Those excuses should apply to Anthony Clark."

Schmidt's counterattack is the latest twist in two weeks of controversy over Clark's voting history, his no-show reputation, and his signing up for a $495,000 pension payout via the DROP program - a move which, as the Inquirer reported, came just hours after he was reelected chairman of the commissioners. That followed reports of his having not voted in five elections between 2012 and 2014, and of his rarely showing up at his City Hall office.

Clark has blamed his missed votes on illness, and said he works from afar, staying in touch with the office by phone.

In recent days, Thornburgh and others - including Mayor Kenney - have sharply criticized Clark's voting hiatus and work habits. On Friday, the Committee of Seventy cited Clark in its call for City Council to change the City Charter and do away with elected city commissioner posts.

Clark's behavior "is embarrassing and insulting to the voters and taxpayers," said the group's statement, issued by Thornburgh. "But there's more than perception at stake. ... The political system and political culture in Philadelphia that enables his conduct deflects attention from the real and important work that the City Commissioners are supposed to lead."

Stalberg, a former Daily News editor, who headed the Committee of Seventy for 10 years before retiring to New Mexico in 2014, did not vote in the 2009 elections, the 2011 and 2012 primaries, and both elections in 2013, records showed. A registered Democrat, he lived in Lower Merion at the time.

Reached for comment Friday, Stalberg said he, too, could not remember why he did not vote in those elections. But he dismissed Schmidt's finding.

"I'm not sure that's relevant" to his former organization's call for changing the city election system, Stalberg said.

That call echoed the one made in a Committee of Seventy report Stalberg oversaw in 2009. He said the study focused on whether professionals should run the city's elections bureaucracy, which now has an annual budget of $9.6 million.

"Our recommendation was that it become a part of the administration so the office was accountable to someone," Stalberg said. "It was not based on Clark's record."

Clark's lack of voting was first reported by Philadelphia City Paper in October 2014, the month Thornburgh took the helm of the organization. Stalberg had left the post a few months before.

Thornburgh said of Schmidt's research into his voting record, "I'm a little disappointed that's how he spent his time." Nevertheless, he said, "there's no excuse - I should have voted."

But he said of Clark and the other commissioners, "I do believe those people should be held to a higher standard."

Schmidt and the third commissioner, Democrat Lisa Deeley, whose annual salaries are $129,373, have voted in every election for the last decade, records show.

Thornburgh said he hopes the conversation about the election board doesn't veer into checking everyone's voting history.

"I think we need to have a serious discussion about the future of the City Commissioners. That's the question that people bring up ... because we don't get it," Thornburgh said. "I hope the focus is on that."

Schmidt contended that the voting habits of Committee of Seventy leaders should be in that conversation - especially since the 111-year-old group scrutinizes the electoral process. "They are professional second-guessers when it comes to elections," he said.

As for the group's renewed call for replacing the board on which he sits, Schmidt said: "They've been beating that dead horse for decades."

cvargas@phillynews.com

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