City Commission meeting gets ugly

Posted: September 21, 2012

WITH SEVEN WEEKS until the general election, Philadelphia City Commission on Wednesday held its first public meeting in three months and quickly descended into bureaucratic bedlam.

The three-member board and its staff, which runs elections in Philadelphia, debated, shouted and complained about new hires, promotions and salaries.

Chairwoman Stephanie Singer proposed a series of staff moves for her office that she said would save the commission $79,000 a year. She was repeatedly interrupted by commissioners Al Schmidt and Anthony Clarke and staff counsel Fred Voigt as she tried to lay out her plans.

They told her that personnel matters had to be discussed privately. Singer had letters from the four people involved, asking for their employment to be discussed at a public meeting.

Schmidt and Clarke, at odds with Singer for months, quickly overruled her proposal, voting to postpone discussion about it until after the Nov. 6 election.

Schmidt called for "focus on the election, which is imminent."

Singer countered Schmidt's concern, saying that leaving her staff changes in limbo would "leave us shorter-staffed than we are" at a busy election time.

Singer's deputy, Dennis Lee, interrupted the meeting to say he needed "full clarity today" on his promotion to chief deputy, which would increase his salary from $72,000 to $84,000, retroactive to July 9.

Clarke said the vote to postpone that discussion was Lee's answer when it came to clarity.

Schmidt noted that Lee is already the highest-paid employee on the commission's staff.

Greg Irving, the commission's voter-registration administrator, questioned Lee's raise, noting that a previous chairwoman's chief deputy had been paid $66,000.

"We haven't had a raise going on four years," complained Irving, who like many commission employees is a member of a city union. "Why so much and we haven't gotten squat?"

Irving also took a shot at Mayor Nutter, who has angered city unions by not signing new contracts. He said he understood that union salaries are "up to the city and that guy they call a mayor."

The donnybrook drew a rebuke from Ellen Kaplan, the Committee of Seventy's policy director, who urged the commissioners to set aside their differences ahead of an election complicated by a new voter-ID law that requires voters to show state-approved identification at polling places.

"I have very serious and genuine concerns about these elections, based on the obvious hostility and rancor in this room between the commissioners and some staff members," she said.

Schmidt and Clarke have held growing concerns about what they see as unilateral power moves by Singer. They joined in June in a series of measures to limit her power in meetings. They also clarified that Singer's election in January to the chairwoman's post could be undone with the votes of two commissioners.

Contact Chris Brennan at or 215-854-5973. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisBrennanDN. Read his blog at

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