Open Wards the subject of last week’s GRASP meeting

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At Thursday night’s Grassroots Advocacy for South Philadelphia (GRASP) meeting, Committee of Seventy Policy Program Manager Pat Christmas detailed some of the latest work the Committee of Seventy has been working on, which included a document entitled “Principles of 21st Century Open Wards.”

Committee of Seventy Policy Program Manager Pat Christmas speaking to those in attendance at Thursday night’s GRASP meeting.

At Thursday night’s Grassroots Advocacy for South Philadelphia (GRASP) meeting, Committee of Seventy Policy Program Manager Pat Christmas detailed some of the latest work the Committee of Seventy has been working on, which included a document entitled “Principles of 21st Century Open Wards.”

According to Christmas, the document came about via a focus group in which members of the focus group wanted a space to talk about what aspects of Philly ward politics could be improved. The focus group had regular meetings and grew in size. The group currently stands at about 50 to 55 people, according to Christmas. About five or six Democratic ward leaders from across the city were invited to participate in the group, Christmas said, and about five or six Republican ward leaders were represented in the group as well.

“Slowly but surely we endeavored to put together on paper some standards — or principles we ended up calling them — for wards to operate in a transparent, accessible, small d democratic way,” Christmas said at the meeting. “And this is what we got.”

Currently the document can be accessed by anyone via a Google Doc, Christmas said. You can contact Christmas at pchristmas@seventy.org or (267) 940–4503 to gain access to the full document, which contains sections for with guiding principles on how open wards should be run with respect to endorsements, bylaws, finances, accessibility and more. Some of the key points taken from the “endorsements” section of the document, which Christmas dubbed “the most significant” part of the document, include the following:

  • Committee people vote on the ward’s endorsements in all elections, including primary and special elections, and to fill a vacancy on the ballot.
  • The threshold and process for endorsements is determined by the ward’s committee people and is included in their written policies.
  • All candidates are afforded equal access and opportunity to seek the ward’s endorsement.
  • The ward’s endorsement process include a full deliberation on the candidates, and any committee person may speak in support of or opposition to a candidate free from retribution, the threat of retaliation, or any other adverse action.
  • Committee people may support non-endorsed candidates free from retribution, the threat of retaliation, or any other adverse action.

Christmas said that Karen Bojar, an expert of Philadelphia’s ward system and author of “Green Shoots of Democracy Within the Philadelphia Democratic Party,” has identified “a handful” of wards in the city that abide, at least loosely, by these guidelines. This is consistent with a South Philly Review report from August which identified the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th, 9th, 18th, 27th, 30th, 48th and 51st wards as open wards by a similar set of principles — all of which were on the Democratic side. There are likely no open wards on the Republican side.

“On the Republican side, I don’t know of any that do most of these things,” Christmas said. “But from the Republican ward leaders I’ve gotten to know, it’s just a different world on that side of the aisle. The bench is shorter, there’s less at stake [and] the endorsements don’t matter as much.”

The last bullet point regarding retribution or threat of retaliation was listed, Christmas said, because of “stories folks brought up about what they’ve encountered in the endorsement process,” hinting that retribution or at least threats of potential retribution have been a problem in the past.

Christmas was clear that the Committee of Seventy would not be enforcing these rules upon the wards, and that the document wasn’t necessarily an endorsement of open ward principles; it merely explains what they are.

“We’re not the arbiters of how wards should work,” he said. “We just facilitated this. And the whole point of this document is that committee people should have a say in how their ward works. In fact, there is no enforcement mechanism. We can’t do it. The government can’t do it. The city committees — they’re responsible for how the wards work, but the city committee has other priorities, so it really does come down to the people in a given ward.”