City commissioners end patronage process for elections workers

Posted: January 26, 2012

In a potential blow to Philadelphia's diminishing political patronage industry, the city commissioners voted Wednesday to find a new process for hiring temporary Board of Elections workers.

Democrat Stephanie Singer and Republican Al Schmidt, both elected last year on reform platforms, supported the proposal as a way to guarantee a quality workforce.

The three commissioners oversee the city's voting system as the Board of Elections.

Democratic Commissioner Anthony Clark, the only holdover from Margaret Tartaglione's reign as election board chair, voiced concern about the proposals and abstained from voting at Wednesday's Board of Elections meeting.

"How are these jobs going to be split between the three commissioners?" Clark asked.

In the past, the three commissioners divided up the 50 to 100 temporary jobs, which pay $10.75 an hour for up to six months of work yearly.

Commissioners often took recommendations about whom to hire from party officials - the leaders of the 66 wards. That left the commissioners' office vulnerable to charges that the jobs were traded as political favors.

"They're trying to make the process more open so that each commissioner is not permitted to have their own patronage hires as they have in the past. It's a step in the right direction," said Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice president and policy director for the Committee of Seventy, the voter watchdog organization.

In introducing the plan, Noam Kugelmass, a deputy to Singer, said the old way of hiring had caused the office to waste money because some people who were hired did not work.

Supervisors also usually did not get a chance to interview the people they hired. The old system also contributed to other problems, Kugelmass said. On Jan. 20, a temporary worker who had been hired under Tartaglione was arrested for drug dealing.

The new procedure would include background checks.

Clark said neither Singer nor Schmidt had discussed the proposal with him beforehand. Singer, who replaced Tartaglione as chair, said that Clark was aware of the proposal before the meeting, and that it was on the agenda.

The commissioners have not yet decided how the new hiring process will work, but in general, they want to let more people know that the jobs are available and require resumés and interviews.

The changes would affect only temporary workers, who help stuff envelopes and check voting machines, among other tasks. They do not work at polling places.

Clark said his office always conducted interviews for the temporary hires. He said he was concerned that a new process might reduce the number of jobs that go to minorities and people of lower income.

The jobs don't pay much, he noted, saying he did not want to complicate the process for those who apply.

Singer said she agreed that their office needed to hire people from various backgrounds, saying, "I am committed that employees will reflect the diversity of Philadelphia."

Councilman Bill Greenlee, also a Democratic ward leader, said he had helped people get work with the commissioners' office. He questioned whether there was a problem.

"I just hope that whatever change is done does not eliminate the chance for some of those people to find a job," he said.

But Carol Jenkins, another Democratic ward leader who said she had occasionally referred people to the commissioners' office, said she wondered whether the process allowed unqualified people to get work. She said she always vetted candidates, but didn't know whether others did.

"I'm not sure that placing the requirement for resumés will necessarily take care of the problem at the back end of it, but it might maybe filter out some of the people that don't necessarily have the required skill level," she said.

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520,, or @miriamhill on Twitter.

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