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Monday, November 2, 2015

Philadelphia Elections 2015

   It took the world premier of RIZZO by playwright Bruce Graham to get me interested in the city’s November elections. The timing, as they say, couldn’t have been better. In this excellent although somewhat one dimensional play, where the focus is mainly on Rizzo’s relationship with the African American community, I could see that the city has come a long way since Lincoln Steffens made the following observation in his 1903 essay, Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented: “…But many Philadelphians do not try to vote. They leave everything to the machine, and the machine casts their ballots for them…”   
    Most voters, if they are honest, would agree that there’s something off-putting about ballot questions. Consider the placement of ballot questions: they are listed last or on the margins alongside the printed slate of candidates. Voters usually vote for ballot questions after voting for the candidates. The ‘post script’ placement of ballot questions after the so called regular voting is not always conducive to making a thoughtful decision, especially if a voter is reading the ballot questions in the voting booth for the first time.  Adequate preparation is key to making a good decision when it comes to these ‘yes’ or ‘no’ votes. 

    As a voter I have bypassed some ballot questions in the past. My rationalizations for doing so were not always good. A few supercilious examples: Not wanting to spend too much time in the voting booth, or feeling that the ballot question that needed an up or down vote just didn’t seem important enough to consider. This apathetic feeling is sometimes enhanced during mid-term elections when there are no dramatic issues or candidates that offer inspiration. When you consider that ‘off season’ elections rarely even inspire people to vote, much less vote on ballot questions, you have an additional problem. Even the so called big elections, such as November 3rd, do not generate a standing room only situation at most polling places.
      I have noticed, for instance, that the polling places in the Riverwards never seem to be overrun with voters. I vote at the firehouse at Huntingdon and Aramingo, and can report with some accuracy that for the last several years the firehouse is pretty much empty when I go there to vote. There may be one or two fire personnel hanging around but other than the poll watchers the place is pretty much empty. Even after I say hello to the poll watchers (who are often neighbors), sign in and vote, I usually leave without seeing any other voter checking in. The last time I saw a line at any polling place was sometime in the 1990s. 
   Unlike political candidates, ballot questions have no flair and zero personality, but they do have one thing: lasting implications that extend far beyond the political life of any one candidate.

     Let’s consider the year in the city’s history where one ballot question drove people to the polls in drives.  The year was 1978 when City Council, under pressure by then Mayor Frank Rizzo, placed a Home Charter Change referendum on the ballot that would give the green light for Rizzo to run for a third term in 1979. Philadelphians voted almost two to one against the change, and the mayor was forced to consider another career (he went to work for PGW and then he entered talk radio).  Rizzo would have to wait until 1989 before running for mayor again as a Republican. In 1989, Rizzo was slightly more liberal than he was in 1978. Experts, in fact, agree that he probably would have won that election had he not died of a massive stroke in the washroom of his campaign headquarters.

   The best way to understand ballot questions is to take a look at the Home Charter Rule.  

   The Home Charter Rule was adopted on April 17, 1951 as a way to break with the city’s corrupt past. It’s hard to imagine today but for 36 years (1916 to 1952) the city was controlled by a strong Republican machine. This was broken by the election of Joseph Clark as mayor in 1952. Only a siematic earthquake or an as yet unforeseen political event will ever return the city to the Republican Party.   

    As the Committee of Seventy explains it, the Home Charter Rule was an attempt to break with patterns of chronic misgovernment.  “The framers of that document carefully sought to reverse the systemic political corruption and repeated failure of then-existing financial controls to promote economic stability,” the Committee stated. 
   Many ballot questions of the recent past have more to do with bureaucratic shuffles than the implementation of something new and radical. In 2014, for instance, one ballot question concerned whether or not the Home Rule Charter should be amended to “establish and define the functions of the Office of Sustainability, headed by a Director of Sustainability.”

      A second 2014 ballot question proposed that the city’s prison system be streamlined with the creation of a new Department of Prisons headed by a Prisons Commissioner who could appoint his/her own deputies. The idea was to replace the cumbersome two-prong leadership of the Board of Trustees of Philadelphia’s Prisons and the Department of Public Welfare. This proposal was not about building new prisons but about the economy of streamlining. The current Prisons Commissioner is Lou Gioria.

   In the May 2015 election all four ballot questions were approved by voters. Perhaps the most important May ballot approved by voters then was the transfer of control of the city’s public schools from the state and turning it over to the city, where most feel it belongs. Pennsylvania’s control of Philadelphia public schools has proven to be disastrous. When voters approved this measure they also approved to abolish the School Reform Commission. 

    But like everything in politics, the vote against the SRC doesn’t necessarily mean the end of it anytime soon. As City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell told the The Inquirer in May, “The vote to abolish the SRC won't elicit any immediate action,…This gives us a chance to talk about it with the governor," Blackwell also added that," People feel they need a more-connected board, possibly including relatives of students in the district.”
   I’m uncertain as to the wisdom of “including relatives of students in the district.” Anyone who knows a public school teacher knows how parents can meddle in school affairs. Some hornet’s nests should be avoided.
      One question on the November 3rd ballot is whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended “to establish and define the functions of the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) affairs. Currently, this is a temporary office in City Hall, first created by Mayor Michael Nutter in 2008 when he appointed Gloria Casarez Director of LGBT Affairs. Ms. Casarez’s death in 2014 led to the appointment of Nellie Fitzpatrick. The Office will not become permanent if voters do not approve the ballot question although the next mayor, most certainly Jim Kenney, will reinstate the Office once again as a temporary one during the run of his term(s). An interesting fact about this ballot question is that it is the first time that a public vote or referendum on a gay rights related topic has ever been presented to the voters of the City of Philadelphia. This one will be very interesting to watch.
  The second ballot question asks whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended to create a new Department of Planning and Development, headed by a Cabinet-level Director. If approved, the measure would also put the Historical Commission in the Charter and create a new Housing Advisory Board. The  City Planning Commission, Historical Commission, Art Commission,Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Housing Advisory Board would be added to the newDepartment.
   Here we have bureaucratic shuffling at its most complicated, yet it seems like intelligent streamlining.
   Some thoughts on this ballot question:
·         If approved the new Director of Planning and Development would be a member of the Mayor’s Cabinet. The Department would have three divisions: Development Services, Planning and Zoning, and Housing and Community Development  
·          There would also be changes to several city boards and commissions, namely, two new members added to the Planning Commission, and the Historical Commission would be included in the Home Rule Charter. The Director of Planning and Development would replace the Director of Housing as a member of the Historical Commission. The Housing Advisory Board would be created, consisting of 12 members.
 The last question on the ballot: Should the City of Philadelphia borrow $155, 965,000 for capital purposes? Capital purposes include the purchase of new real estate, construction, improvement to buildings, property or streets. One major caveat here: City Council would have the power to change “the intended allocation of these proceeds.” What is this if not a major red flag? The city is already in debt because of overspending on the papal visit. Yes, the city, in its exuberance to be a good papal host, assumed that visitors to the World Conference of Families would spend lots of money on hotels and restaurants but the reality was far different. The visitors turned out to be thrift-minded religious pilgrims who packed their lunch rather than opt for that new Stephen Starr eatery.   Vote no on this one, folks.      .