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April 23, 2024 3:10 am

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Commissioners office shakeup leads to tension in Philadelphia, raising concerns about distraction ahead of 2024 election

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Carter Walker, Votebeat

This article was originally published by Votebeat, a nonprofit news organization covering local election administration and voting access.

A power shift and restructuring within the Philadelphia Board of City Commissioners is causing strife among its three elected members, which observers warn could create the appearance of dysfunction in the office as it enters a high-pressure year overseeing the city’s elections.

In January, commissioners Seth Bluestein and Omar Sabir voted to replace longtime Commissioner Lisa Deeley as chair and have Sabir take over the role. The newly reorganized board also shuffled responsibilities among the office’s top employees, removing some of the chair’s central authority.

Since then, the commissioners’ meetings have been marked by frequent public spats, primarily between Deeley and Sabir, her successor as chair.

“I worry that the animosity that you’re seeing in those meetings is going to undermine people’s faith in the security of our system,” said Lauren Cristella, president of the Philadelphia-based good government group Committee of Seventy. “I think that drama adds itself to the idea of the office not being well run” when in reality it is, she said.

Deeley, a Democrat who became chair in 2017, described the changes to Votebeat and Spotlight PA as a “power grab” by Bluestein, a Republican who is the board’s newest member. She says she’s “nervous” that the leadership changes could make the election operation weaker, including a risk of election fumbles that typically comes with inexperienced officials.

At one meeting, she also accused her fellow commissioners of breaking transparency rules.

The other two commissioners defended the changes and expressed confidence in the office’s capacity to run the elections.

The three city commissioners are responsible for overseeing all aspects of elections in Philadelphia, from voting machine purchases to coordinating operations at polling places on Election Day. Unlike commissioners in other counties, Philly commissioners work exclusively on elections.

So far, Deeley is the only person in city government raising concerns about the coming election, and despite the restructuring of duties in the office, the three commissioners appear to agree on many of the policy decisions that will most affect voters, such as establishing satellite election offices.

But as in 2020, the board’s actions will be under intense scrutiny as the city runs the presidential election for Philadelphia, which will be the biggest and most logistically complex in the state.

Four years ago, then-president Donald Trump filed a barrage of lawsuits and accused Philadelphia of malfeasance aimed at keeping him from winning reelection. At the time, the board — made up of Deeley, Sabir, and Al Schmidt, who is now secretary of the commonwealth — publicly presented a unified front, markedly different from the infighting seen so far this year.

Two visions of how the commission should work

The disputes between board members began in January when the commissioners presented two starkly different visions for how their office should operate. The competing proposals pitted Deeley, who has served on the board since 2016, against Bluestein, who had worked as a deputy commissioner under Schmidt since 2012. Bluestein was nominated to fill Schmidt’s seat in December 2021, then was elected this past November.

Deeley’s plan would have consolidated power over elections under the board’s chairperson, who would be in charge of “all of the day-to-day operations” and have top staff in the office reporting directly to them, according to the proposal. If the chair position became vacant, under the proposal, the chair’s unelected deputy would take over those responsibilities until the board picked a new chair.

That vision for the board was an extension of how the office had been operating for the past several years, Cristella and others said.

A member of Deeley’s staff, longtime deputy Nick Custodio, had for years been managing many of the day-to-day tasks of the commissioners’ office. Deeley’s proposal would have further given him authority over the other two commissioners’ office staff, along with the chair’s.

“So much, almost everything ran through Nick,” Cristella said. “So this was kind of codifying this and extending it over to the other commissioners.”

Rich Garella, a South Philadelphia voting and transparency activist who has been monitoring the board since 2019, said for the past several years it has seemed as if Custodio was in charge. Garella said, for example, that he saw Custodio instruct ballot canvass watchers on what they could and could not do, and other times when he asked questions about how the board was operating, commissioners told him: “Nick decided that.”

In an interview with Votebeat and Spotlight PA, Deeley defended her proposal as being in line with how things have traditionally run at the office.

“The chair of the commission has historically led the board of elections,” she said. “At the end of the day, respectfully, you need someone to be the boss.”

Bluestein offered a different vision, one that he and Sabir, a Democrat, approved over Deeley’s opposition.

Under Bluestein’s plan, each commissioner is responsible for hiring and managing their own staff. The proposal also created two new positions at the top of the department — the director of election administration and director of election operations — who report to the board.

The director of election administration is tasked with overseeing day-to-day administrative work for the department — such as working with outside entities like vendors and state government and presenting the department’s proposed budget. Previously, Custodio and others on Deeley’s staff handled those tasks.

Bluestein and Sabir voted to hire Stephanie Reid for that position. She is a city employee who previously worked with the commissioners’ office to help implement satellite voting offices in 2020.

“We’ve put someone in charge who has never run an election before,” Deeley said.

“People should be concerned,” she said. “This is not a year to be building [experience]. Nick and I and the staff have been building since 2020 to prepare for 2024.”

Deeley likened her concerns to statewide ones about the turnover among election directors and the resulting inexperience among the people in charge of voting operations.

Two commissioners say the changes will bolster the office

In an interview, Bluestein did not respond directly to Deeley’s assertion that the change was a “power grab,” but said he had “complete confidence” in the office’s ability to manage the election.

“We are bolstering our team underneath the city commissioners to bring in more people who are experienced and competent administrators and collaborative in their approach to management,” he said, adding that the plans for these positions have been in development with the previous mayor’s office and an outside consultant for several years.

“This is a policy of addition, not subtraction,” he said. “Bringing more people in to shoulder some of the workload will benefit the entire team.”

Bluestein said he had confidence Reid had the right experience and knowledge about how elections in Philadelphia operate to ensure they run well, and that the commissioners’ role in overseeing voter registration and elections “hasn’t changed.”

That confidence was echoed by Cristella of the Committee of Seventy in a statement released at the time of Reid’s hiring.

In a separate interview, Sabir said the operation as a whole remains strong despite the changes.

“This is an unfortunate distraction in this climate, where people are attacking the integrity of our elections with misinformation,” he said, adding that he has full confidence in the newly hired staff, including Reid.

He also rejected Deeley’s accusation that the structural changes were a “power grab.”

“We cannot get caught up with the distractions of other people who have their doubts,” he said. “A lot of those same people had those doubts in 2020, and guess what? We delivered and we’re going to deliver again.”

Dispute on display at board meetings

Bluestein and Sabir’s decision to replace Deeley as chair and empower new staff members to run the office has caused tensions that have spilled over into recent meetings.

At the commissioners’ first meeting after the board shakeup, Sabir cut off Deeley’s line of questioning about the commissioners’ proposed budget, saying “We’re not going to turn this meeting into a circus.”

The pattern repeated itself at the next week’s meeting, when Sabir again repeatedly halted Deeley’s questioning, saying at one point that items she was bringing up should have been addressed before the meeting. At a subsequent meeting, Sabir reminded his colleagues to refer to him as “chairman” after Deeley called him “commissioner.”

Deeley publicly accused the board of violating the state’s Sunshine Act — a law that governs public meeting transparency — after Sabir stopped her from asking questions about a hiring decision that was unrelated to the board’s recent reorganization.

The board had been criticized for its transparency practices under Deeley’s tenure, too — the city controller accused the commissioners of using an “opaque” process to buy voting machines, for instance, and they got flak from Garella and others for refusing to livestream in-person meetings to the public during the pandemic.

Melissa Melewsky, a lawyer with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (of which Spotlight PA is a member), said the commission’s handling of the hiring decision “seems to run afoul of the letter of the law.”

The Sunshine Act requires agencies to provide an opportunity for citizens to meaningfully comment on issues before a vote, which Melewsky said cannot be done if citizens do not understand the proposal.

Sabir deferred questions about the Sunshine Act to the city’s legal department, but said his understanding is that “everything is running smoothly.”

Garella, the activist who has repeatedly accused commissioners of not being transparent enough, said he hoped their practices would improve under the new leadership structure.

“But what I can see is that we have a chaotic situation where the new chair is trying to shut down that discussion in front of the public,” he said.

Asked about the back-and-forth between her and Sabir, and her Sunshine Act allegations, Deeley said that things were “bumpy in the beginning” and that Sabir has been “evolving in the role,” but that she still needs to be allowed to ask questions.

Kevin Greenberg, a Philadelphia-based attorney who has represented all three commissioners at various points, said there was an “ordinary amount of friction” during the chair transition, and doesn’t believe the staff restructuring will amount to much change in how elections are run. He thinks it has now been resolved and said the Philadelphia election community is confident in Sabir’s ability to run an “efficient, transparent, and honest” election this year.

Cristella, of the Committee of Seventy, said she is confident in the office itself, as well as Reid’s administrative abilities. She pointed to initiatives the commissioners are leading, like new poll worker training and recruitment efforts, as things the public should focus on.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be confident in their ability to lead the city’s elections,” she said. “I just hope the personal drama doesn’t eclipse that.”

Carter Walker is a reporter for Votebeat in partnership with Spotlight PA. Contact Carter at cwalker@votebeat.org.

Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization covering local election integrity and voting access. Sign up for their newsletters here.