Why We Shouldn't Let Elected Officials be Ward Leaders

(65th Ward leader Bobby Henon could control up to 15% of the vote for his Council successor | Photo: Councilmember Bobby Henon)

Philadelphia City Council's two indicted members, Bobby Henon and Kenyatta Johnson, are both ward leaders who could have an official vote on their own replacements under certain circumstances, even if they're convicted and removed from office. In an Inquirer op-ed earlier this week, I described how this could potentially work, along with some things the Philadelphia Democratic Party could do to head off that possibility.

Philadelphia’s Democratic Party should consider how damaging to the public trust it would be if elected officials removed from office for crimes related to their official duties were allowed to handpick their own replacements.

There are a few ways party leadership could remedy this conflict before disaster strikes. One option would be to amend their bylaws to specify some circumstances under which people convicted of a crime in office must resign. Another option, which would also have other desirable political consequences, would be to ban elected officials from serving as ward leaders in a dual capacity.

The simplest and best way to fix the problem is to change the Party's bylaws to bar elected officials (and candidates) from serving as ward leaders. If Johnson and Henon (and about 15 other elected officials in Philadelphia) were no longer ward leaders, they wouldn't be able to vote on candidate nominations for special elections, or vote on ward endorsements under normal circumstances.

We pointed out why this is a problem back when Councilmember Johnson first became 36th ward leader back in 2018.

In most wards, the ward leader alone decides on candidate endorsements or special election nominations rather than a vote of the elected committee people. In some wards that have their own bylaws, decisions are made by a vote of the committee members. And because wards have PACs that raise money to support endorsed candidates, a Ward Leader-Elected Official in a ward that operates autocratically essentially can the ward into an auxiliary campaign PAC for themselves. This is most concerning in cases where the ward leader is self-endorsing in their own election.

And apart from the campaign finance conflict, politically it's better for elected officials to be accountable to committee people, rather than vice versa. Even in a ward where committee people vote on endorsements, nobody's going to feel right declining to endorse the ward leader for reelection to their elected position, and there's also additional pressure to support the Ward Leader-Elected Official's preferred candidate recommendations for other offices.

This has started to change in some wards. Notably, in the 1st Senate District primary, both 2nd ward leader Nikil Saval and 8th ward leader Larry Farnese have recently stepped back from their ward leader duties. Saval resigned outright in compliance with 2nd award bylaws passed after the 2018 ward elections, which prevent candidates and elected officials from serving as ward leader. Committee person and Reclaim member Colleen Puckett succeeded Saval as 2nd ward leader after a close leadership election with Dermot Delude-Dix, another Reclaim member who Saval supported. In the 8th Ward, Farnese stepped back for this election cycle and two committee people are running the show in the meantime. It’s a positive sign of the times and a testament to why it's valuable to participate in ward elections.

The Philadelphia Democratic Party would be smart to borrow this easy procedural adaptation from the Party leaders on the ground who are already using it successfully to solve conflict-of-interest problems. 

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2020-02-07 12:03:50 -0500