Fixing Perpetually Corrupt Institutions—The Philadelphia Story

Often in the anticorruption world we grapple with the question of how to deal with perpetually corrupt institutions. One example is the Philadelphia City Commission and its elected commissioners. In recent years, Anthony Clark, the Chair of the City Commission got paid despite not showing up to work, while other commissioners have engaged in overt patronage politics, such as doling out jobs to family members and steering city contracts to businesses and institutions run by family members (leading to the federal indictment of the daughter of the long-serving former Chair on corruption charges). And although credible voter fraud charges in Philadelphia are uncommon, the Commission has not done a particularly good job of administering elections, its primary job. For example, in 2012 more than 27,000 registered voters were somehow left out of the official polling books, and had to cast provisional ballots.

Things with the elected Philadelphia City Commissioners have gotten so bad that some (including the Committee of Seventy, a good governance group in Philadelphia, and the city’s two largest newspapers, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News) have called for abolishing the elected positions altogether. The Committee of Seventy has called for replacing the elected City Commissioners with an appointed board of professions to administer Philadelphia’s elections, although its plan is short on details.

This proposal relates to a larger issue with which anticorruption reformers in many jurisdictions struggle: which positions should be elected, and which should be appointed? When is democratic accountability the solution, and when is it the problem? There is no one right answer, of course—it all depends on context. Yet in the specific context of the Philadelphia City Commission, the instinct to eliminate the democratic process is premature for two reasons.

First, those calling for the abolition of the commission would remove democratic choice from Philadelphia voters, something that ought to be a last resort solution. As Jeanne discussed in a recent post on candidate disqualification rules, there are concerns that disqualifying a candidate from running for past corruption are anti-democratic and often overly blunt. Similar worries hold true for abolishing an elected office. (True, Philadelphia voters would have to approve a ballot referendum to abolish the elected City Commissioner positions—essentially one last democratic exercise to end voters’ direct say in who administers elections in the City of Brotherly Love.) And although leading voices argue the City Commission cannot be saved, recent electoral history suggests otherwise.

In the last two elections for City Commissioner (2011 and 2015), Philadelphia voters proved their desire and ability to elect reform candidates as city commissioners. Despite Chair Clark twice winning reelection, in 2011, a candidate running on a modernization and transparency platform, Stephanie Singer, unseated the longtime Chair of the City Commission Marge Tartaglione. True, Clark and the Republican commissioner, Al Schmidt, soon teamed up to form a voting bloc against Singer, and Singer failed to collect enough valid signatures to run for reelection in 2015. But Singer’s successful campaign against a party-backed incumbent in 2011 shows that city voters can be persuaded to vote for candidates who want to reform the institution. Furthermore, Lisa Deeley, who replaced Singer as a City Commissioner in January, appears to support institutional reforms. The recent anecdotal evidence suggests that if two reform candidates can win election in the same year, the type of progress reformers have called for may be possible without removing citizens’ democratic choice and voice.

Second, it makes more sense to attempt moderate reform before calling for wholesale elimination of a longstanding elected institution. Although someone designing a new city probably would not create an elected body for administering elections, Philadelphia is not writing on a clean slate: despite its warts, the City Commission has a stabilizing effect on how elections are administered in the city. Before calling for abolition of the City Commission, reformers need to make clear what they would put in its place. The Committee of Seventy has called for a system like Chicago’s (where court-appointed commissioners administer elections), but has provided few specifics. Without more detailed proposals, moderate reform seems wiser when Philadelphians’ right to vote is at stake.

What might moderate reform look like? For one, more transparency about the Commission’s work would give Philadelphia voters more information to make wise decisions come Election Day. For example, elected City Commissioners could be required to clock in and clock out, and could be required to release the number of contacts they receive from citizens and how long it takes to respond. Unfortunately, the two other elected commissioners recently defeated Commissioner Deeley’s efforts to adopt similar reforms. Another moderate reform proposal: prohibiting the elected commissioners from hiring friends and family members for leadership staff positions on the Commission. This would reduce the opportunity for patronage-style corruption and also might decrease the desirability of the job for candidates who have corrupt motivations for running.

Although this post focuses on Philadelphia, the concerns with abolishing perpetually corrupt elected positions may apply in a whole host of other anticorruption efforts. Earnest efforts to elect reform candidates and thoughtful proposals for moderate reform should precede calls for abolishing elected institutions—even perpetually corrupt ones.

(Disclosure: I interacted with many Committee of Seventy and Philadelphia City Commission staff members in 2010 as a campaign staffer for a statewide candidate in Pennsylvania.)

13 thoughts on “Fixing Perpetually Corrupt Institutions—The Philadelphia Story

  1. What a frustrating situation! I think I agree with your intuition that reform platforms ought to be tried before abolishing a whole elected body. Do you have a sense of how much public awareness there is of the Commission’s work and how much voters are informed about the candidates who run for Commissioner? The potential for both of those answers to be “not much at all” seems to compound the issue. That is, perhaps voters are not informed about the candidates and their reform-mindedness, but they may also be unclear about the role of the Commission and what a good Commissioner looks like. If voters view the body as playing a relatively straightforward role (administering elections, how hard could it be?), there could be even less reason to be concerned about clean candidates.

    Could there be some hybrid way to preserve the democratic vote while also reforming a certain amount of the Commission? For example, there could be two court-appointed Commissioners and one popularly elected. I’m not sure how that would address any underlying routes to abuse, but it could offer a partial alternative to voters reelecting proven bad actors.

    • Great points, Kait! You’re definitely on to an important issue with respect to low public attention to city commissioner races. A large part of this is because the elections take place at the same time as the mayoral elections in the city–and these are always in off years (e.g. 2015), meaning fewer voters are engaged in the first place. The primary election is actually the important one, both for the mayoral and city commissioner races, further reducing voter attention. On the publicity point, credit goes to the Committee of Seventy for raising awareness, even if I do not agree that abolition should be the next order of reform. A citizen petition to abolish the elected city commissioners recently got underway and has over 1,000 signatures (see: http://thephiladelphiacitizen.org/al-schmidt-anthony-clark-petition/).

      I’m not opposed to the idea of a hybrid commission with some elected officials and some judicially appointed officials, although questions of which group has the majority raise interesting issues. Certainly, there is room for experimentation, my point is just that it should proceed thoughtfully and with a focus on maintaining democratic choice for voters.

      • I agree with Kaitlin– one of my first reactions was that the public might just not have much awareness about what is going on. Nate, I’m not convinced that having a larger electorate (either if the elections were held during even years or if the general election were the decisive one) would help solve the problem: my intuition is that it could actually make things worse. I suspect that off-year primary voters are actually the most high information voters out there, so lumping the election in with other more high profile ones could encourage more party line voting, random voting or name recognition voting.

        An unrelated point: Nate you mention the idea of banning commissioners from hiring friends or family. I wonder how you would measure who is someone’s friend and therefore disqualified? Similarly, people may have many professional friends that it would be logical to hire because they trust their expertise and know that they will do a good job. How would you balance that interest and the interest in reducing opportunities for patronage?

        • On your first point, in my experience in Philadelphia there is a much larger population of what I would call “high-loyalty” voters than “high information” voters. That is, in the primary elections in the city, it is very difficult—but not impossible—for someone not supported by the city chapter of their respective party to win a nomination. Conversely, during general elections a certain portion of the electorate may not be aligned with the local party leadership, and those votes could potentially swing an election. In any case, the value of moving the election to a different time is probably dependent on the particular dynamics of the municipality or state.

          Your second point is well taken. Friendship is a difficult line to draw, and certainly many elected officials have qualified friends and associates who are worthy of obtaining government contracts. I am not sure there is a perfect way to achieve the balance you describe, but if patronage concerns are glaring, it may be wise to swing the balance in the other direction even if the change lands the balance too far in the other direction. Alternatively, you could set up an independent process (perhaps run by the City Comptroller) to vet contract awards to friends of elected officials, to try to ensure that the contract was awarded on merit rather than for patronage purposes.

          • I like the idea of an independent process. If one person (or one closely aligned cohort of people) do not have sole hiring authority, cronyism becomes much more difficult. At the same time, that way we could refrain from arbitrarily banning many potentially qualified candidates who happen to have worked with the controller before. As Congress has shown us recently, however, even advise and consent is not a panacea.

  2. For a European cases like the above are always a bit baffling. Electoral systems, and accompanying citizenry common sense about what democracy is, what that means for the staffing of a country’s institutions, etc. differ way more than the umbrella term ‘democracy’ suggests. Your case makes for fascinating and quite depressing reading, but one remark stood out for me: “When is democratic accountability the solution, and when is it the problem? There is no one right answer, of course—it all depends on context.” I would be very interested to read your thoughts about what kind of context(s) would make democratic accountability the solution, and for what kind of context(s) it would be a problem. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Thank you for reading, Roger, and for your incisive question, which really gets to the heart of the matter. I cannot say that I have a set of circumstances I see as making democratic accountability a problem (working from the presumption that democratic accountability is a solution in the standard case–perhaps an incorrect baseline). On this point, I am not sure the fact of democratic accountability can be removed from the particular circumstances of the political processes.

      In Philadelphia, for example, one party dominates electoral politics, and although seats on the City Council and City Commission are reserved for candidates from other parties, the fact of one party dominance may tend to make democratic accountability less valuable than it otherwise would be because the opportunity to put democratic accountability in action occurs mainly during the primary election with lower turnout.

      Certainly, there are other factors that play in to your question, and I will definitely think on it more and perhaps develop my thoughts in to a future post. Thank you again for a great question.

  3. Pingback: Fixing Perpetually Corrupt Institutions | Anti Corruption Digest

  4. At this risk of sounding antidemocratic, I am curious what you think the central value of electing these commissioners is compared with not electing them? Of course there are many interesting theories about the point and purpose of representation. But, to me, one of the cornerstone reasons for elections is the desire to have lawmakers who reflect the big picture policy goals of their constituents. Positions that are supposed to be more technocratic (such as people employed in the administrative bureaucracy) or less policy oriented (such as judges) are often unelected. Perhaps I’m less well versed in what the PCC does, but it’s my understanding that mostly they administer voter registration and run elections. Are those really positions that require the types of policy oriented judgments we think elected officials should be making?

    I realize my point is somewhat orthogonal to yours, as you are arguing from a position where the democratic institution is entrenched. However, I think part of any justification for creating a democratic institution or keeping it should be an argument that elections themselves are likely to lead to the best outcomes. Democratic voice is valuable, of course. But since this involves election officials, a poorly run office — as a result of electing ineffective commissioners — is likely to (ironically) squelch that voice rather than enhance it.

    • Thanks for your comment, Courtney, and sorry for my delayed reply. I am inclined to agree with you on the point about whether on a blank slate electing the people who administer elections is necessary from a policy perspective. Still, I think there are some aspects of the election administration task that do tend to invoke policy oriented judgments best suited for elected officials. For example, in a city of limited resources, changing demographics, and increased technological avenues to reach voters, perhaps it should be elected officials who decide how to allocate limited resources in a way that maximizes voter engagement and voter turnout (if those are the goals that voters want election administrators to follow). I will also note that if these positions are not elected, they should probably be appointed by someone who is elected such that there is some modicum of democratic pressure put on the appointees to carry out their jobs professionally.

      Your concluding concern is well-founded, and one I have thought about a lot. As I mention in the post, given the recent election of two reform-minded commissioners, I am not prepared to say that the voters’ democratic voice is permanently squelched or irreversibly reduced by these positions being elected. However, I do think that there probably comes a (tipping) point in institutions such as these where the ineffectiveness of the body might permanently undermine the democratic accountability it is in place to protect. A good question to consider is how good governance groups can determine when that line has been crossed.

      • My previous comment mentioned my ‘European’ reaction to the issue being discussed here. Your conversation with Courtney triggers that reaction again 🙂 I am not a political scientist and thus not very familiar with the academic democracy debates, but it seems to me that your response to the issue of a politicized versus a career bureaucracy is heavily influenced by a very particular view on what democracy is about and how that translates into institutional design. As is my gut reaction to Courtney’s argument which is an immediate, unreflexive ‘obviously she’s right’. So please, don’t interpret that as criticism, it is an unavoidable cognitive flaw. Because of this I intuit that taking an empirical in addition to philosophical approach is going to make a difference. Election administration (also) involves (more or less) policy oriented judgments. Sure. But which administrative office doesn’t? From a philosophical perspective one can argue for ever what institutional design is better, empirically one could just look and assuming that some basic criteria of institutional performance could be agreed upon (I agree, not easy when underlying assumptions differ) let the ‘facts’ speak. I am very aware that the facts never ‘speak for themselves’, but I’m nevertheless convinced that adding an empirical approach would broaden the perspective on a topic like this. To illustrate by way of provocative example: debating the institutional design of national health care systems knowing a bit about how well different designs perform makes for a much better informed debate. When thinking about the role of governments versus markets, knowing that the US cost/citizen given its ranking on some basic health and health care indicators is such an international outlier, provides an important frame. It ‘forces’ staunch promoters of a US-like system (admittedly assuming we deal with integer debaters) which is usually based upon very general premises, toward evidence-based explanations of why very specific features of the design as it is actually being implemented work better than alternatives. And that is the level of debate we’re after, isn’t it?

        • I could not agree with you more, Roger, on both points. Yes, I think my perspective on the debate is founded in a set of norms that reflect longstanding political approaches which are not universal. And I also agree that empirics would be the best way to depart from a normative skew and toward a better understanding of what approach yields better results.

          One might ask what empirical factors we could look at in the context of election administration, and a few come immediately to mind: voter registration, voter turnout, cost of administering elections, and “incidents” relating to voting (suppression, fraud, etc…), to name a few. One challenge would be controlling for the myriad differences that exist between any two election districts, but it certainly could be done. I will note that the big focus of comparison between Philadelphia and Chicago (the city on which Committee of Seventy wants to model a new election administration agency) is the cost to run the organization, which I am not convinced tells the whole story.

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