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.)