New suit aims to wrest oversight of primary election from Philly city commissioners

 Philadelphia City Commissioners (from left) Lisa Deeley, Anthony Clark and  Al Schmidt will monitor Tuesday's primary election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Commissioners (from left) Lisa Deeley, Anthony Clark and Al Schmidt will monitor Tuesday's primary election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A pair of good-government groups have again filed a lawsuit aimed at barring the Philadelphia city commissioners from overseeing May’s primary election.

The suit, filed this week in Common Pleas Court, echoes a similar action recently denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The 64-page document differs in that it takes direct aim at all three city commissioners, whom voters chose every four years.

The suit argues that, under state election code, the city commissioners should be recused and replaced by a panel of judges or “electors” because a ballot question proposes a change to the home rule charter.

“We’re asking for a law that’s been on the books for something like 40 years, to be enforced in Philadelphia. It’s never been enforced before,” said Benjamin Geffen, who is representing the watchdog Committee of Seventy, one of the groups behind the lawsuit.

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The suit also maintains there’s a potential conflict of interest because the ballot question deals with how city contracts are awarded — contracts that could be tied to the city commissioners office.

“If we win, ultimately that will require the disqualification of those city commissioners for the May 16 primary,” said Geffen. “And the statute says when that happens, the president judge selects judges or other electors of the county to serve in their stead.”

The city’s solicitor’s office, which is representing the city commissioners, was not immediately available for comment.

It has argued that state law applies only to ballot questions dealing with changes to a county’s home rule charter, not a city’s. Philadelphia County and the City of Philadelphia are one in the same.

The solicitor’s office also maintains there’s no conflict of interest because the city commissioners did not help draft the ballot questions that will be put to voters on May 16.

City Commissioner Al Schmidt has said the suit’s plaintiffs should work with the office to improve elections in the city instead of “wasting everyone’s time.”

The suit is part of a larger effort to abolish the city commissioners and replace them with a board of elections led by a director appointed by the mayor.

“The fact that the city commissioners must be replaced in far more elections than not highlights the obsolescence of Philadelphia’s current model of elected city commissioners, and it supports the organizational petitioners’ efforts to replace that body with appointed and experienced professionals to oversee, administer, and modernize Philadelphia election,” wrote Geffen.

The city commissioners oppose the move, saying voters should decide who is in charge of elections in the city.

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