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Lawsuit seeks replacing of City Commissioners for 2017 election

March 31, 2017 GMT

Political watchdog group the Committee of Seventy — along with the organization Philadelphia 3.0 and three individuals and candidates for local election boards — filed a lawsuit with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court against Court of Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, calling on her to replace Philadelphia’s three City Commissioners for the 2017 election cycle.

The suit, filed Monday, is based on a state law that requires electors to be replaced with appointed judges when there is a Home Rule Charter change on the ballot.

It relies on a section of the Pennsylvania Election Code that speaks to ballot questions around Home Rule Charter.

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The section reads, “Whenever there appears on the ballot a question relating to the adoption of a Home Rule Charter for the county or amendments to an existing county Home Rule Charter, the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas shall appoint judges or electors of the county to serve in the stead of the county commissioners.”

This year, there is a Home Rule Challenge ballot question to change the City’s procurement protocol.

“In our view, the law is pretty straightforward,” said Committee of Seventy President David Thornburgh.

Commissioners, who are elected every four years, must also be recused if they appear as candidates on the ballot.

Last spring the Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia 3.0 created the Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition. A member of the group noticed the election code rule, and the coalition looked back at elections since 2002 to ascertain how many times the rule was followed.

The group found that since 2002, city commissioners were not replaced in 23 out of 31 instances in which they should have been.

“Looking back to 2002 between those two instances, they should’ve been recused 75 percent of the time,” Thornburgh said.

It’s important to ensure commissioners are lawfully removed when a Home Rule Charter amendment appears on the ballot because the issue of eliminating the role of city commissioners altogether requires a Home Rule Charter amendment. As more elections require Home Rule Charter amendments, it raises the issue of whether or not commissioners should exist.

Instead, Thornburgh proposes the city have one appointed, paid professional to serve as the director of elections, with an unpaid, nonpartisan election board chosen with community input and City Council approval. Former City Councilwoman and former City Commissioner Marian Tasco advocated last year to do away with city commissioners and adopt the appointed election director.

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“I am convinced an appointed system would save money, which would be better spent on critical priorities like pre-K education,” Tasco wrote on Facebook about the matter last year.

“We’re paying a lot more than other cities and getting less,” Thornburgh said.

City Commissioners Anthony Clark, chair, Al Schmidt and Lisa Deeley each make around $130,000 annually and their staffs are also paid.

Spokespeople for the commissioners and for Woods-Skipper advised they were unable to comment on pending litigation.