New coalition revives effort to revamp Philly elections office

A coalition of civic groups is seeking to abolish Philadelphia City Commisioners. The elected three-member board consists of (from left) Lisa Deeley

A coalition of civic groups is seeking to abolish Philadelphia City Commisioners. The elected three-member board consists of (from left) Lisa Deeley

A grassroots push to eliminate the Philadelphia City Commissioners Office has new legs.

On Wednesday, the Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition made its public debut during a press conference steps away from the City Hall offices of the three-member board, elected every four years to oversee elections and voter registration.

The coalition’s 12 members — including civic and government watchdog groups — want to replace the commissioners office with a department of elections led by an election director, who would be appointed by the mayor.

“We’ve got a system that just doesn’t work — that is invisible, inefficient and really unable to lead,” said David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy.

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Outrage over the office started bubbling after it came to light that commissioners chairman Anthony Clark was routinely a no-show at work and at the polls.

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 has said it’s his constitutional right to make a choice one way or the other.

The coalition seeking change will need help from City Council, Mayor Jim Kenney and voters to achieve its goal.

Getting rid of the office would require City Council to pass an ordinance, the mayor to approve it and voters to agree via ballot question.

Thornburgh said the coalition was having “active conversations” with members of City Council, but no one has agreed to introduce a measure yet.

Council President Darrell Clarke, for one, has expressed opposition to abolishing the commissioners office.

“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 in response to an online petition posted in February.

Not surprisingly, the group also doesn’t have the support of the commissioners.

In an email, vice chairman Al Schmidt said, “The key to good governance is electing good people.”

Lisa Deeley, a first-term commissioner, agreed.

“If a political appointee was put in charge of elections, they would be beholden to the appointer. Us, as elected commissioners, we’re beholden to the voters that elect us, and if they find that we’re not doing a job to their standard, they then have the opportunity to vote us out of office,” said Deeley.

Through a spokesman, Mayor Jim Kenney has said he “supports City Council considering such a move.”

Americans for Democratic Action, Asian Americans United, Committee of Seventy, Disability Rights Network, Economy League, Fifth Square, Influencing Action Movement, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Philadelphia 3.0, Philly Progressive Caucus, Public Interest Law Center, and the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition are represented in the alliance.

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