Back Channels: 2 city commissioner candidates promise change

Posted: May 08, 2011

City commissioner races are usually quiet affairs with predictable results.

Two of the three seats go to Democrats, one to a Republican. Since the mid-1970s, one of the Democrats has been Marge Tartaglione, now 78. She's the chairwoman of the agency, which is tasked with overseeing city elections, maintaining voter-registration records, and training election officials. Her co-commissioners are there to (1) elect her chairwoman and (2) shut up and stay out of her way.

Come November, there will still be two Democrats and one Republican. Tartaglione will likely be reelected, despite her $288,000 payout from the controversial DROP program and last year's resignation of her daughter and deputy, Renee, who was accused of politicking in violation of city rules.

But will Marge Tartaglione still run the show? Yes, if her current colleagues, Democrat Anthony Clark and Republican Joseph Duda, are also reelected. No, if voters opt for two strong primary challengers calling for reform.

And reform is the least of what this office needs. In fact, the nonpartisan watchdog group Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, which oversees city finances, have both called for the elimination of these elected positions.

A Committee of Seventy report says that city elections are run "relatively smoothly" but that commissioners "largely operate outside the public's view." Philadelphia, it notes, is the only one of the nation's 10 largest cities where "local elected officials run local elections."

A 2009 PICA study pointed out that Philadelphia spends a little more than $9 per voter on its elections, almost double the state average. It, too, noted the city's unique status: "Philadelphia's system of election administration is an anomaly among major cities. ... In the majority of cases, elections are run by a professional staff under the oversight of an appointed official."

Both PICA and Seventy cite city controller's audits raising questions about the commissioners' handling of payroll, revenue, expenses, and records.

After all those criticisms, and after the Renee Tartaglione controversy, what kind of scrutiny do the commissioners get? Virtually none. At a Council hearing on their budget last month, they got a pass. The commissioners were seeking more money but didn't show up to defend their request. And why should they if "oversight" means all of one question about postage?

That's no way to run a government agency, says Al Schmidt, a former auditor with the U.S. Government Accountability Office and one of two GOP challengers running in the May 17 primary.

"On Capitol Hill, when an agency wants its budget approved, especially when it wants more money, you send the secretary to testify," Schmidt said. "If it's so important, it's worth an hour of your time one day a year."

Schmidt, 39, also called for accountability and transparency in his unsuccessful race for city controller last year.

"Both are watchdog positions and focus on integrity of the system," he said.

He argues that a lack of faith in the system turns off voters, hence the city's chronically low turnout. And a lack of budget transparency prevents improvements to voter registration and technology.

Technology and transparency also figure prominently in the campaign of Democrat Stephanie Singer, 47, a data strategist and former math professor.

"I'm looking forward to using my math skills to look at all the data from the elections and how we run them," she said. "I want to use a fact- and science-based approach to making elections more efficient and open."

Singer has already been doing exactly that. Many called for city election results to be posted online, but most accepted the commissioners' excuses about why that couldn't happen. Singer obtained the results and posted them herself. What better way to show you're qualified for the job than to just do it?

Schmidt and Singer are the standouts in a large field of candidates. Neither has the endorsement of the city committees - a plus given that these offices should be as independent of the parties as possible. But both are finding support in the city and beyond.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has come out for Schmidt. Mike Barley, executive director of the state GOP, says of Schmidt's candidacy: "This is an opportunity to be proud of someone we've elected in Philadelphia, someone who's qualified and will do a good job."

That applies to both Schmidt and Singer. They deserve the support of anyone who is serious about bringing accountability and transparency to an office that's been flying below the radar for far too long.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-

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