New focus for city office

Al Schmidt ...
Al Schmidt ...

New commissioners want to make it easier for people to get involved.

Posted: November 17, 2011

In January, there will be two new faces among the three city commissioners, who run Philadelphia elections: Stephanie Singer, a mathematician and Center City ward leader who beat longtime incumbent Marge Tartaglione in the Democratic primary; and Al Schmidt, leader of an insurgent faction in the city Republican Party, who beat GOP incumbent Joseph Duda. They talked this week with staff writer Bob Warner about their hopes and plans for the office. Excerpts follow.

 Question: What do you agree on most strongly as priorities for change?

Schmidt: The common denominators during the campaign really focused on transparency, making sure the office provides information to people when they need it . . . that it's more efficient and more accountable to taxpayers and people who depend on it for service. 

Singer: And that would be mostly voters and candidates.

Q: What do you mean by "transparency"?

Schmidt: They're not transparent in how they spend taxpayer dollars. . . but more importantly, the information that people need to become engaged in the civic life of the city. . .. Whether you want to run for office or just want the information for your own edification, it's been largely something that you have to physically trek down to the office to get.

Singer: And then they want to know who you are and why you're there.

Q: What's the better process?

Singer: Part of it is simply making certain information is easily, publicly available, through the usual formats and also on a website. Budget detail and election results and things like that. And part of it is changing the culture of the office. . .. making clear that we're here to serve the public - the voters, the candidates, and the parties. And that our job is to make it easier for people . . . to be engaged.

Q: What aspects . . . do you find inefficient?

Schmidt: The training of election board workers has been really very poor, and I think it shows in a lot of ways. I know it hurts our minority party and other minority parties . . .. They've never seen a poll-watcher certificate before and they kick people out . . .. It causes a lot of havoc on Election Day.

Q: Both of you have said you intend to give up your positions as ward leaders. Why?

Schmidt: Every election . . . I know Commissioner Duda was in his ward, making sure his polling places were covered with committee people to push for the candidates that he backed. . . . They're engaged full time in partisan political activity when they're supposed to be running an election for everybody. Given the office and its responsibilities, it seemed like a gross dereliction of duty.

Singer: As a Democratic ward leader, I'm responsible for getting out the Democratic vote and pushing Democratic candidates . . .. I ran into this conflict before, because I had a fledgling data-analysis business, and after I became a ward leader, every candidate wanted to hire my business . . .. That conflict is always there to some extent, and we just have to minimize it.

Q: Al, you have an added role with a group of Republicans who are dissatisfied with the [GOP] leadership in Philadelphia. Are you planning to divorce yourself from that?

Schmidt: We didn't campaign on some sort of platform that was focused on the party. It was always focused on the office. So how things shake out with the party - and there are certainly going to be changes in store in the immediate future - that's still unclear at this point.

Q: Changes in the party leadership, or in the 'Loyal Opposition' faction? Or both?

Schmidt: I think both. The so-called Loyal Opposition was never any kind of organized group; it's more like an e-mail list . . . a broad group of people who are dissatisfied with the party and its direction.

Singer: But it's a movement and you're a leader of it, right? I really want to hear the answer to this.

Schmidt: Some of this is going to come about by leaving the ward-leader position. . . . I was never elected to lead any kind of faction.. . . What I mean to say is, there's nothing to step down from.

Q: Do you see significant changes in the [commissioners'] top-level professional staff?

Singer: We couldn't if we wanted to [due to civil-service rules] and what I want is to keep the people there . . ..

Schmidt: The civil-service staff has been terrific to work with.

Q: How is the office going to be different?

Singer: The focus in 2012 is going to be on the elections happening as smoothly as possible in what's going to be a large and complicated election year, large because of the presidential, complicated because of all these special elections and redistricting.

Schmidt: I would add the choices in the primary on the Democratic side and the choices in the general on the Republican side were pretty stark and they were about far more than just personality. They were about the direction of the office and the direction of the city, so it's not just a matter of, 'Here, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.' This [election] was a really big deal, and it could really be a catalyst for something much greater in terms of civic participation and elections.

Singer: I'm nodding over here, for the record.

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