Stalberg to quit Committee of Seventy, head west

Posted: June 05, 2014

It may not surprise many people in Philadelphia-area politics that Zack Stalberg is leaving the helm of the Committee of Seventy to live out a Western fantasy.

The 67-year-old former newspaper editor who took over the nonprofit watchdog group in 2005 has been a kind of ethics sheriff ever since.

Stalberg announced Tuesday that he would step down as chief executive of the Committee of Seventy later this month. It is his second retirement and likely not his last. He and his wife are moving to New Mexico, where Stalberg hopes to ride horses and land a non-government-related job.

"I want to do something that's different, that gets me outdoors," the former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News said Thursday.

Admirers credit Stalberg with waking up "Seventy," a sleepy century-old organization that had mostly monitored elections, and turning it into a feisty force in local government.

"We weren't taking positions, we weren't getting out there," Ned Dunham, chairman of the group's board when Stalberg was hired, said. "He turned it around. We started to do things."

The committee was founded in 1904 by a group of prominent Philadelphians who were fed up with City Hall corruption and one-party rule (at the time, Republicans had ruled for decades) and started advocating for better, cleaner government. Its name was a reference to the Bible's Book of Exodus, in which Moses appoints 70 elders in leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.

Over time, the bane of many a nonprofit - limited financial resources - diminished its role and influence.

Stalberg arrived in 2005 with the challenge to "wake this thing up," as he put it.

He broadened the organization's mission beyond being a watchdog of elections and ethics, to also advocate for other government functions such as effective use of taxes. He added some monetary juice, increasing its fund-raising and raising its budget from $450,000 to $1.2 million in recent years.

As a nonprofit watchdog group, Seventy has no real authority, Stalberg admits. But it can serve as a bully pulpit from which to champion change, he said.

He cited the group's lively role in the fight against Pennsylvania's Voter ID law, which recently was ruled unconstitutional. Seventy was also a staunch advocate for the city's limits on campaign contributions, which withstood a 2007 court test and which Stalberg said "crippled pay-to-play," the political culture in which political donors are rewarded with municipal contracts, and for the recent ban on cash gifts to city officials.

Stalberg said he would like to see his successor - a choice still to be determined by the board - direct more on-the-ground work, such as the group did in on the voter ID issue.

"That was the first time doing something really at the grassroots level," Stalberg said. "We were knocking on doors . . . it was like running a campaign."

That effort "whet our appetite" to expand the committee's influence across the state, he said.

On the local front, Shane Creamer, executive director of the city's Board of Ethics, said the group had steadily backed tougher rules for officeholders. "Over the past nine years, they've been significant participants in supporting major ethics reforms in the city," Creamer said.

Stalberg is unapologetic about stances he and his group have taken, despite being a nonpartisan organization.

"Playing it too safe was not good for the city or the public," Stalberg said. "We just think there needs to be more voices out there."

And then there was the personal enjoyment: Asked what the most fun part of his job was, Stalberg said with a devilish grin, "Annoying politicians. It never stops delighting me."

The hat on his filing cabinet and the Western posters on his office wall point to his next adventure.

"I hope he finds that horse he is looking for," Creamer said.

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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