Watchdog groups maintain Philadelphia City Commissioners shouldn’t oversee some elections

 David Thornburgh, President and CEO of Committee of Seventy. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

David Thornburgh, President and CEO of Committee of Seventy. (Bastiaan Slabbers for NewsWorks)

Government watchdogs Philadelphia 3.0 and The Committee of Seventy aren’t giving up on their legal push to limit how often the Philadelphia city commissioners oversee elections in the city.

The pair this week filed an appeal in Commonwealth Court after a state judge rejected a lawsuit against the commissioners.

“I would suspect this issue will pop up again. Maybe not every primary, every election, but with some degree of regularity,” said Larry Otter, who is representing Philadelphia 3.0

The petitioners have argued the Pennsylvania state election code bars the trio from managing elections when there’s a ballot question that would alter the city’s home rule charter. Specifically, they maintain, because those kinds of questions present a conflict of interest.

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The City Solicitor’s Office, which is representing the commissioners, and the courts have disagreed.

The day before Tuesday’s primary election, Common Pleas Court President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper shot down a lawsuit aimed at temporarily replacing the commissioners with judges or so-called electors.

Woods-Skipper sided with the city, saying the state election code only applies to proposed changes to county home rule charters, not city home rule charters. Lawyers for the Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia 3.0 argued state law is relevant because City of Philadelphia and Philadelphia are one in the same.

In mid-April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a motion to compel Woods-Skipper to recuse the commissioners.

In response to the suit against her, Woods-Skipper’s lawyers said the president judge and her court are “not appropriate advocates to advance arguments” regarding the state election code or “to defend any institutional interests.”

It could take months before there’s a ruling in Commonwealth Court.

If the appeal is unsuccessful, the case could end up back in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“We’re in this for the long haul. We think there’s something important at stake,” said David Thornburgh, president of Committee of Seventy.

The City Solicitor’s Office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt has had harsh words when asked about the legal fight.

“Given our shared interest in elections, it would be better if they tried working with us to improve elections rather than wasting everyone’s time,” said Schmidt.

The Better Philadelphia Elections Committee, of which Philadelphia 3.0 and the Committee of Seventy are a part, wants to replace the office with a department of elections led by a director, who would be appointed by the mayor.

The commissioners have argued the director would be beholden to the mayor, not the public.Getting rid of the city commissioners would require an ordinance from City Council, the mayor’s signature and voters to agree via ballot question.

Thornburgh said the coalition “always welcomes” discussions with members of City Council about introducing a measure that would eliminate the city commissioner’s office. To date, no one has indicated, at least publicly, that they’d be interested in introducing such a measure.

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