A Troubled History: the Office of the City Commissioners

The City Commissioners were created by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1711. At first, most duties were focused on taxation, but subsequent acts of the Assembly expanded the Commissioners’ regulatory power and added a variety of county government functions. The offices took on election-related responsibilities in 1799, when they began maintaining lists of registered voters. Over the next 150 years, the Commissioners took on more election-related duties, but the three-member elected Office of the City Commissioners didn’t emerge in its present form until 1951 with the enactment of the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter and city-county consolidation. In the 65 years since, 17 people have been elected as City Commissioners, most of them Democratic or Republican party leaders.

  • osser and mchenry

1950s-70s: Maurice Osser (D) and Thomas McHenry (D) and Walter Davidson (R) were elected City Commissioners in 1951, the first municipal election under the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter. Davidson was reelected once, McHenry four times and Osser, five. The two Democrats (both Ward leaders) ran into trouble: McHenry in 1970, after he was caught taking kickbacks from a voting-machine manufacturer in exchange for a contract to replace the city’s voting machines; and Osser, in 1972, when he was convicted for mail fraud related to contracts for printing ballots.

  • marge tartaglione smiling

1975: Democratic ward leader Marge Tartaglione was elected to the first of nine terms she served as a City Commissioner. Democratic City Committee official Eugene Maier was the other Democrat elected that year while one-term incumbent Francis Patterson, also a Democratic ward leader, lost his reelection bid.

  • marge madness cover

1978: Marge Tartaglione was arrested on Election Day, accused of moving voting machines in an attempt to aid Mayor Frank Rizzo’s bid to change the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter to enable him to run for a third term the following year. (Tartaglione was acquitted; Rizzo lost.) A 2011 Daily News profile of Tartaglione (headlined “Marge Madness”) noted that she was honored by the Pennsylvania State Boxing Hall of Fame in 1979 "because she won't backstep for anyone."

  • unhappy tartaglione headline

1994: The City Commissioners certified Republican Bruce Marks the winner of a special election in the 2nd State Senate district the previous November following a federal judge’s ruling that Marks’ Democratic opponent, William Stinson, had been the beneficiary of absentee-ballot fraud. According to the New York Times, the  Democratic City Commissioners "testified that they were aware of the voter fraud, had intentionally failed to enforce the election law and had later tried to conceal their activities by hurriedly certifying the Democratic candidate as the winner." Marks was seated April  28, 1994 but lost his reelection bid that November to Marge Tartaglione’s daughter Christine Tartaglione.

  • big budget but little oversight headline

A 1994 Inquirer investigation of voting-machine expenses found that “no city in America spends as much as Philadelphia to maintain voting machines.” “On average,” the paper reported, “Philadelphia spends $400 a year for parts and labor for each of its 3,500 machines. New York spends $250; Boston, $243; Allegheny County - including Pittsburgh and 130 towns - spends $233; Baltimore, $125; San Antonio, $83; and Denver, $58.” A City Controller audit from the same year found no accurate inventory for the more than $1 million in spare voting machine parts among a litany of other issues.

2006: U.S. Department of Justice sued the City Commissioners for failing to provide sufficient election-related materials and assistance to Spanish-speaking voters. The Commissioners reached a settlement agreement in 2007 requiring that the city ensure equal access for Limited English Proficiency voters. The settlement was amended in 2008.

2007: A City Controller’s audit found that the Commissioners' petty cash fund was “susceptible to fraud and abuse”; that “four (of 11) key City Commissioner employees failed to file required [financial] disclosures for the 2005 calendar year”; and that “no attendance or leave records are maintained for non-civil service employees.”

2008: Following her election to a ninth term as a City Commissioner, Marge Tartaglione takes a $288,000 DROP payment, “retires” for a day, and then goes back to her post in City Hall.

  • seventy logo

March 2009: A Committee of Seventy report titled “Needless Jobs: Why Six Elected City Positions Should Dieadvocated eliminating the three City Commissioners, along with the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the Sheriff and Register of Wills. (The Clerk of Quarter Sessions was abolished in 2010). “In Philadelphia, the City Commissioners largely operate outside the public’s view.” the report said. “They seem to prefer it that way.”

  • booth barriers headline

April 2009: The City Commissioners settled an Americans with Disabilities-related lawsuit with the Department of Justice to give disabled Philadelphia voters greater opportunity to vote at their polling places rather than by alternative ballot. “You could either vote ab­sent­ee or not vote,” said a lawyer for the disability-rights groups that brought the suit. “Out of 1,600 polling places, only four were ac­cess­ible.” But the agreement led to charges in 2011 that compliance was too costly and inconvenienced other voters.

November 2009: A PICA report (“A History We Can No Longer Afford”) that also advocated abolishing the City Commissioners and the city’s other row offices included the calculation that Philadelphia County’s election administration spending of $9.18 per voter was almost twice the median ($4.68) of Pennsylvania’s 15 largest counties.

  • renee tartaglione and carlos matos

2010: Deputy City Commissioner Renee Tartaglione, a daughter of longtime Commissioner Chair Marge Tartaglione, leaves office under fire for playing a role in 2,000 sample ballot flyers that deliberately misled voters and collecting Election Day "street money" from the city's Democratic Party. She also served as a substitute ward leader for her husband, Carlos Matos, while he served a federal prison sentence for bribery.

2011: Reformers Stephanie Singer and Al Schmidt ousted Tartaglione and four-term Republican City Commissioner Joseph Duda in the primary and general elections, respectively, and Singer was elected chair of the board. In their first year in office, the two were able to make reforms in such areas as nepotism and ethics training.

  • 2012 provisional ballot graphic

November 2012: More than 27,000 city voters were forced to use provisional ballots on Election Day. Post-mortem reports by the Mayor Nutter's administration, the PA Department of State, the City Controller and city elections staff pointed to different factors that contributed to the breakdown.

  • singer and schmidt

November 2012: Less than a week after Election Day, Singer was ousted as chair in a “coup” orchestrated by Commissioner Al Schmidt. The two had grown increasingly alienated from each other during their first year in office. Mayor Michael Nutter called the City Commissioners a “three-ring circus.” “This is an operation where you have three different people in charge and at the moment it appears that no one is charge,” Nutter said. “I’ve been in this business 30 years and I don’t recall, for this level of an election, that level of seeming confusion, finger-pointing, and lack of coordination.”

  • aaldeflogo

April 2014: The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund files a complaint against the City Commissioners after documenting language access challenges for Asian American voters going back to 2007. Only a handful of Asian language interpreters were trained and assigned to polls for the November 2012 presidential election.

  • city hall awol

October 2014: The Philadelphia City Paper reported that Commissioner Anthony Clark had not voted in five straight elections in 2012, 13 and ’14. City Paper also found that Clark is rarely seen in the office, a trend that apparently continued into 2015 according to the Daily News.

June 2015: City Commissioner Chair Clark agreed to pay a $4,000 fine after the Philadelphia Ethics Board found that he improperly tried to secure a raise for his brother, a City Commissioners employee. The Ethics Board also found that Clark threatened a civil service employee who was cooperating with the investigation.

  • anthony clark cartoon

January 2016: Following his reelection as a City Commissioner in the November 2015 general election, Clark was reelected as Chair. He then enrolled in the controversial DROP program, putting himself on course to receive a $495,000 payout in addition to a $10,000-a-month city pension. The Inquirer reported the following month that Philadelphia spends more on election oversight than other major cities.

  • keystone votes late processing table

May 2017: A report published by Keystone Votes, a nonpartisan coalition of 39 organizations, found that some 17,000 voter registrations were processed late (within eight days of polls opening) in Philadelphia before the November 8, 2016 general election. This represented 3.8 percent of all registrations processed in the county, a rate 8.5 times higher than the state average. The report also found evidence that a significant proportion of applications were misprocessed or lost entirely. See the full report.

Follow the nonpartisan Better Philadelphia Elections Coalition to join the campaign for 21st-century voter access and election integrity.