Grassroots movement aims to dissolve Philly’s city commissioners office

Anthony Clark (center) was re-elected chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners by fellow commissioners Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Anthony Clark (center) was re-elected chair of the Philadelphia City Commissioners by fellow commissioners Lisa Deeley and Al Schmidt. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A grassroots push to abolish the Philadelphia city commissioners office is gaining steam, but may lack the political support needed to make the change a reality.

Just over a week ago, the Philadelphia Citizen, an online publication, posted a petition calling on City Council to pass legislation that would end the decades-old practice of voters electing three city commissioners to oversee elections and voter registration.

To date, more than a thousand people have signed the petition on Change.org.

“These are administrative positions, so make them administrative appointments,” said Citizen editor Larry Platt. “It is not a perfect system. There’s going to be politics no matter how you set something like this up, but recent events show us that we’re broken.”

Outrage has been bubbling for months after it came to light that commission Chairman Anthony Clark didn’t vote for more than two years and was often a no-show at his City Hall office.

Things got hotter when voters learned that Clark had signed up for the city’s deferred retirement option plan, entitling him to a lump sum of nearly $500,000 at the end of what’s expected to be his fourth and final term in office.

It’s unclear, however, if any Council members are willing to introduce a bill, the first step of a process that is close — but not identical — to what’s needed to make a charter change.

Council President Darrell Clarke, for one, isn’t interested.

“You have a group of special interests who understandably are concerned about the alleged conduct of one or two of the commissioners, but the simple reality is that the people spoke, and they spoke quite aggressively,” said Clarke.

If Council passed an ordinance, Mayor Jim Kenney would have to sign it before voters decided on the issue via a ballot question.

Kenney, who has called Clark’s behavior “insulting,” said through a spokesman that he “supports City Council considering such a move.”

In the meantime, the city commissioners are eyeing the petition with concern and confusion.

Newly elected Commissioner Lisa Deeley said abolishing the office would “breed further distrust among voters.”

“It is important for people to decide who governs them and who is watching over their elections. If there is an appointed party, doesn’t that automatically make the person beholden to that person?” said Deeley

Commissioner Al Schmidt doesn’t oppose the effort out right, but he doesn’t support it either. Right now, he said, there just aren’t enough details.

“I am in favor of efficient and effective government and fair and honest elections, and I’m interested in anything that furthers that. But without a plan, I can’t comment if it’s better or worse,” said Schmidt.

Clark reportedly failed to vote in 2012 and 2013, as well as in the 2014 primary.

In October, weeks before city voters chose a new mayor, it took WHYY five visits to the city commissioners office to find Clark at work there.

Clark contends he’s never been missing and has always been available by appointment. As for not voting, he said, it’s his constitutional right to make a choice one way or the other.

The city commissioners collectively earn almost $400,000 a year.

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