Ballot questions include ending resign-to-run rule

Councilman Dennis O'Brien backs a change for the indigent.
Councilman Dennis O'Brien backs a change for the indigent.
Posted: May 20, 2014

Philadelphia voters will decide three ballot questions on Tuesday, including one seeking to end the city's long tradition of forcing politicians to resign from office before running for another post.

The resign-to-run rule was enshrined in the City Charter in 1951 as a good government salve to years of corrupt, one-party rule. But City Councilman David Oh, who sponsored legislation to put the question on the ballot, said the rule instead had caused political stagnation that hamstrings the city's influence.

"Do voters want to keep a leash on their politicians?" he asked. "Or do they want to take the leash off so they can do their jobs better for the City of Philadelphia?"

Oh, a Republican at-large member, sought feedback on his proposal from the Philadelphia Ethics Board, which did not take a position, and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, which supported ending the rule.

Seventy's president and CEO, Zack Stalberg, said in an editorial that ending resign-to-run wouldn't guarantee more political competition.

But, he wrote, "If it helps disrupt the status quo just a little, then it's worth your vote."

Mayor Nutter, who resigned from Council to run an underdog campaign in a five-way Democratic mayoral primary in 2007, has argued to keep the rule.

"We don't think anything is broken," said Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman. "We see no need to change the current, long-standing rule."

The change would not go into effect until 2016, after the next mayoral election. Elected officials would not be allowed to seek two offices at the same time, meaning Council members, who are elected on the same cycle as the mayor, still would have to quit to run for that office.

Voters rejected an attempt to end resign-to-run in 2007. If the question is defeated again, it cannot return to the ballot for five years.

Voters also will be asked Tuesday whether the city's "living wage" standard should be extended to city subcontractors.

The standard requires companies with city contracts to pay their workers 150 percent of the federal minimum wage, currently $10.88. That standard does not now apply to subcontractors.

The battle over the living wage has centered largely on Philadelphia International Airport, where subcontracted employees say they make as little as $7 an hour with no health insurance. A coalition of labor, faith, and community groups has pressed for better pay and benefits for those employees.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., sponsor of the ballot question and long an advocate of the living-wage standard, said the city needs to make an investment in the most economically vulnerable citizens.

"That's real help for real people," he said. "In fact, the people who need it the most."

After initially expressing concern about the ballot question, Nutter surprised some advocates this month by signing an executive order raising pay for subcontracted workers to $10.88 for the rest of the year.

Starting in January, the wage would rise to $12, per the executive order. Goode said he intended to introduce legislation after the election making the $12 scale permanent, assuming voters answer the ballot question affirmatively.

Finally, voters will be asked to decide whether Council should have oversight on certain contracts related to hiring the lawyers who represent indigent clients and defendants.

That ballot question grew out of the administration's attempt to hire a private firm to represent the indigent in cases when the Public Defender's Office has a conflict.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia and the private lawyers who now get appointed to handle those cases said they feared a private firm would put profit before clients.

The administration was on the verge of signing a contract with a private firm when it dropped the effort in January. The administration cited a "technical issue" and vowed to start the process over.

Nutter opposes giving Council that authority; McDonald said it goes against the intent of the charter, which established a strong mayoral form of government.

"There was a particular policy dispute," he said. "To turn it into a fundamental change in the charter is ill-advised."

Councilman Dennis O'Brien, who fought the administration's plans and sponsored the ballot question, said he wasn't trying to make a fundamental change but wanted to address a specific problem.

Because the clients in these cases are poor and often struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, he said, Council should have some say in this case.

"This has to be a protected class," he said. "This is different than any other city contract."



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