Clout: Traffic Court problems may break down elections

Posted: February 08, 2013

WATCHING the parade of Philadelphia Traffic Court judges surrendering last week at the federal courthouse, we wondered if the latest ticket-fixing scandal and resulting criminal charges would change much of anything.

Traffic Court scandals come and go in Philly. The names of the judges change, but the scam stays the same. Political pull is the currency that trumps everything.

But this mess - nine current and retired judges, one former court official and two businessmen facing charges - may be Traffic Court's tipping point.

Could this be the last year that the city elects Traffic Court judges?

Barbara Deeley wonders about that. When we last spoke in December, Deeley, who served as the city's sheriff in 2011, was set to run for one of the three openings on Traffic Court this year.

She's backing off that now, contemplating her options, concerned that the media coverage of the court, the "public outcry" about the charges and the attention of good-government groups like the Committee of Seventy might lead to the end of Traffic Court.

Candidates can start circulating nominating petitions on Feb. 19 to get on the May 21 primary election ballot. The job pays $91,052 per year.

Two judges indicted last week, Bobby Mulgrew and Mike Lowry, are up for retention for another six-year term on the Nov. 5 general-election ballot. Both have been suspended without pay.

"I think less people will be willing to run for it, out of fear," Deeley said, noting the federal interest in Traffic Court. "You won't be able to make a move."

Not everyone is discouraged. Donna DeRose, an auditor in the state Treasurer's Office and chief steward of one of the unions that represents employees there, says she is "definitely running."

Her boyfriend, Bill Dolbow, 35th Ward Democratic ward leader, was mentioned four times in a November report on Traffic Court commissioned by the state Supreme Court. That report, not part of the federal investigation, said that Dolbow was known to seek "special consideration" for people with traffic tickets.

While potential candidates ponder the race, state Sen. Dominic Pileggi is working to eradicate Traffic Court in Philadelphia.

Pileggi, a Delaware County Republican and Senate majority leader, introduced legislation last Friday to eliminate the court, one day after all but one of its judges were charged with crimes.

"It's time to end this embarrassment," Pileggi proclaimed Tuesday, after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve that legislation. Two Philadelphia senators, Mike Stack and Larry Farnese, voted to move the legislation forward.

Pileggi's first bill would change the state Constitution to eliminate the court. That must be approved in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be put to a statewide vote. The earliest that all could happen is May 2015.

The second bill sends traffic cases to Municipal Court. Anyone already elected to Traffic Court would move to Municipal Court as a hearing examiner. That job, going forward, would be appointed by the president judge of Municipal Court.

The Senate could pass Pileggi's bills as early as next week. If that happens, the state House could pick up the cause in April, after state budget hearings.

Pricey transparency

Want to catch up on the action at the weekly meetings of the City Commission, which runs Philadelphia's elections? It will cost you.

Class Act Reporting Agency, the company with the contract to transcribe the meetings, charges $4 per page for transcripts.

Owner Rose Tamburri told Commissioner Stephanie Singer in a November email that she should not give the public free copies of transcripts.

Singer, who had posted transcripts on her website, took them down to avoid a legal fight but calls the contract "ambiguous" on the issue of paying for copies.

That's going to change when the contract runs out on April 30.

The commission voted Wednesday to have the city's Procurement Department revise future contracts to make transcripts free to download from its website.

That's already the case for City Council meeting transcripts.

"It is possible this will increase the cost of the service, but we will not know until the bids are in," Commission Vice Chairman Al Schmidt said. "It will certainly increase transparency, which is the objective.

Singer wanted the transcripts from past meetings to be free for download as well. That issue remains unresolved for now.

Mandel led $ race

Brett Mandel, running in the Democratic primary for City Controller, spiked the football this week with a news release noting that he led the field in fundraising, as reported in 2012 annual campaign-finance reports submitted by candidates last week.

Mandel said that his cash balance as of Dec. 31, $206,084, was more than the three other candidates in the race had raised in 2012 combined.

Incumbent Alan Butkovitz, seeking a third term, had $146,681 in the bank as of Dec. 31.

Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is holding a Butkovitz fundraiser Monday night with U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the Democratic Party chairman, and Council President Darrell Clarke as "special guests." That should boost Butkovitz's finances.

Two former assistant city solicitors, Michael Williams and Mark Zecca, trailed in fundraising.

Williams had $28,747 as of Dec. 31 and Zecca had $14,001, including $11,116 he lent himself.


Email: brennac@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5973

On Twitter: @ChrisBrennanDN

Blog: philly.com/phillyclout

|
|
|
|
|