Open Wards movement formalizes into city-wide organization

Posted 8/13/20

By Karen Bojar In the 2018 committee person elections, a group of newly elected committee people brought their commitment to transparency and democracy to wards across the city. They have now joined …

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Open Wards movement formalizes into city-wide organization

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By Karen Bojar

In the 2018 committee person elections, a group of newly elected committee people brought their commitment to transparency and democracy to wards across the city. They have now joined together to form a new organization, Open Wards Philly (OWP), described on the group’s website (openwardsphilly.com) as “an effort by both newly elected and veteran committee people, and some of the ward leaders they helped elect, to create a better ward system across Philadelphia.”

The new group was officially launched in July 2020, with a website, an elected steering committee, and bylaws designed to ensure that Open Wards Philly will model the values of democracy and transparency its members want to see in the ward system. Membership is open to any registered voter in the City of Philadelphia who shares Open Wards Philly’s Statement of principles:

These principles are agreed upon in an effort to create a more open, accessible, and democratic political system.

These principles support the agency of committee people, who are the direct representatives of their constituents.

These principles affirm the right of committee people to act in good faith, free from retaliation and the threat of retribution.

The group is non-partisan.  However, for all practical purposes Philadelphia is a one-party town, with Democrats greatly outnumbering Republicans and members of minority parties; as a consequence, the overwhelming majority of Open Wards Philly members are Democrats. In the recently held elections for Open Wards Philly’s nine-member steering committee, the group elected six Democratic committeeperson and one Republican committeeperson from wards around the city, as well as one member who is not a committeeperson. The bylaws allow for participation of a limited number of steering committee members who are not elected committeepeople. There is currently one open seat.

Two of these newly elected steering committee members, Michael Swayze and Heather Pierce, are from Mt. Airy’s 22nd ward.  

“The election of new Committeepeople in 2018 made me realize the keen interest many of us have in the democratic, small “d,” process,” Swayze said. “It is my hope that together we can work to rejuvenate the ward and election process in Philadelphia."

As Cynthia Albrecht, Democratic Committeeperson in the 22nd ward, succinctly put it: “We're trying to institute 'good government' for wards." 

Philadelphia’s ward system is on the cusp of change, and Open Wards Philly clearly has a role to play in making the ward system more “small d democratic.” Prior to 2018, in only five wards did committee people have the right to vote on endorsements, rather than unquestionably accepting endorsements handed down by the ward leader. The number of open wards is slowly expanding; also, in some wards, where the new committee people were too few in number to elect a ward leader committed to running an open ward, they formed an open ward caucus. Such a caucus formed in Mt. Airy’s 22nd Ward.

When committee peopleare again elected in 2022, Open Wards Philly hopes to encourage more people committed to democracy and transparency in the ward system to run for committeeperson and thus expand the number of open wards.  Change is coming. The Philadelphia Democratic Party has fragmented into groups of competing factions, and is currently staffed by ward leaders and committee people largely in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The current configuration cannot last much longer. Open Wards Philly intends to play a role in bringing about much needed change.

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