Philly’s city commissioners push back on suit asking that they step aside during May primary

 A lawsuit challenges whether the Philadelphia City Commissioners (from left) Anthony Clark, Lisa Deeley, and Al Schmidt, can impartially oversee the May primary election because there is a ballot question that could affect the office. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A lawsuit challenges whether the Philadelphia City Commissioners (from left) Anthony Clark, Lisa Deeley, and Al Schmidt, can impartially oversee the May primary election because there is a ballot question that could affect the office. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia city commissioners have asked a judge for the right to fight a lawsuit seeking to temporarily replace the three-member board during May’s primary election.

Filed late last month, the suit argues the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should compel Common Pleas Court Judge President Sheila Woods-Skipper to swap out the commissioners for a panel of judges or “electors.”

The plaintiffs, which include the government watchdogs Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia 3.0, say a section of the state election code bars the city commissioners from overseeing an election when there’s a ballot question about a home rule charter change, as there is this spring.

They also argue that the ballot question presents a conflict of interest. It has to do with how city contracts are awarded.

In a filing last week, the city commissioners, who are not named in the suit, disagree with both of those interpretations of the election code statute.

Lawyers with the city solicitor’s office, which is representing the commissioners, argue there’s no conflict of interest because the panel had no role in drafting the ballot question.

They also maintain that the state law only applies to ballot questions proposing changes to a county’s home rule charter. And while Philadelphia County and the City of Philadelphia are one and the same, “Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter is a city charter.”

Deputy City Solicitor Benjamin Field said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

None of the three city commissioners returned calls seeking comment.

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

“To the contrary, the duty of the court is to decide whether the statute is triggered after hearing the arguments on both sides and interpreting the statute in an adjudicatory posture. In coming to this court seeking mandamus, petitioners have bypassed this key adjudicatory step,” wrote the judge’s attorney, A. Taylor Williams.

The lawsuit is part of an ongoing effort to abolish the Philadelphia city commissioners board and replace it with a department of elections with a director appointed by the mayor.

Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia 3.0 conducted research that, applying their understanding of state election law, revealed the city commissioners should have been replaced 75 percent of the time since 2002.

State law also requires that the city commissioners be recused when they are running for re-election.

The commissioners have said an appointed director would be dangerous because he or she would not be beholden to the voters, who can cast a ballot to voice their displeasure with an officer holder.

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