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Power: An Open Letter to Mayor Nutter

June 20, 2008

The Editors, Philadelphia Magazine


This is why we're happy you're our mayor: On May 12th, the Inquirer ran a story about two 20-something sisters, Kristen and Courtney Kammerer, who had opened Remedy Tea Bar two and a half years ago on Sansom Street. It detailed the many frustrations the sisters were having in dealing with the city; the zoning board, for example, ruled that they had to remove their store's security grate, which resulted in repeated break-ins. It was a story about two young, idealistic entrepreneurs who spoke of their resentment of a bureaucracy that seems designed to create problems for them.

The same day the article appeared, you walked into their store. You not only bought some hot chocolate; you gave them information on security-related grants they're eligible for. Most important, as the human face of the faceless government that had so frustrated them, your mere presence told them that someone was on their side.

There have been many such moments in the first six months of the Nutter administration: when you personally confronted the scumbag who took Officer Stephen Liczbinski's life; when you forcefully dropped the hammer on those cops who had morphed into a marauding gang, showing the courage to take on police brutality; when you oversaw the removal of some 2.56 million pounds of trash from the city's streets in one day; when you hired clearly competent administrators, people like police commissioner Charles Ramsey and commerce director Andrew Altman, from outside the city instead of giving the nod to whatever apparatchik happened to be next in line; when you spoke to the Chester County Chamber of Commerce and declared that the fates of the suburbs and the city are intimately intertwined, that we really are all in this together. In all these cases, your eloquent example has spoken volumes. "I'm on your side," you've said, in effect, to all of us. That is the mark of a leader whose heart is in the right place.

We're writing to you today because these examples still give us hope that you can become a transformative mayor - a modern-day Richardson Dilworth, if you will. That you really are someone who, as we wrote upon endorsing you over a year ago, is willing to "take on the entrenched interests and do the people's business." Frankly, though, there are reasons to be concerned.

Six months into your term, we're still looking for an overriding, signature issue. (At a comparable point in his mayoralty, John Street had towed 40,000 abandoned cars and laid the groundwork for his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.) While we applaud your one-day cleanup, we sense that so far, you've avoided the real cleanup the city is in dire need of. We are Nutter supporters because, as we wrote a year ago, "reform" isn't one of many issues, it's the issue. Our most pressing problems are either caused or exacerbated by our go-along-to-get-along culture, which you promised to change. Six months into your term, we're reminded of the old Who song: We've met the new boss, and he seems a lot like the old boss. Six months into your term, we're wondering: Where's the reformer?

LOOK, WE'RE PRACTICAL people. We understood the need to kick off your administration with an op-ed singing the praises of longtime Democratic Party boss Bob Brady. We like Brady - he's a skilled mediator - and you need him by your side to deal with the city's unions. With Philadelphia facing potentially crippling pension-fund and health-care costs, we understood that you'd have to confront the city's municipal workers; we figured it would be Rendell Redux, circa 1991, when, facing bankruptcy, he eliminated one out of every 14 city jobs, started contracting out many city services, froze city worker pay for three years, and cut the number of paid holidays. Clearly, you'd need Brady to get our fiscal house in order now.

But alas, you undercut virtually all your leverage by announcing that you'd opted to borrow your way out of the problem, to the tune of $4.5 billion (later adjusted to $3.5 billion). In the process, you rejected every major recommendation made by the "Philadelphia's Quiet Crisis: The Rising Cost of Employee Benefits" study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia just after your inauguration, such as seeking an increase in workers' contributions to the city's pension plans. We were disappointed; we expected a mayor who was touting "New Day, New Way" to lay out a bold vision, to paint a picture of what Philadelphia could become, to prioritize a series of investments in concert with straight talk about the sacrifices many of us would have to make for the common good. Certainly, part of reforming Philadelphia means confronting the stranglehold certain unions have over the way we've long done business. Taking a pass on doing that with the municipal unions right out of the gate sent a "business as usual" signal.

Our concern is that you haven't attacked the status-quo culture in the way candidate Nutter spoke of. You've laudably reformed the mayor's office, bringing in former U.S. Attorney Joan Markman to ride herd on ethics, in accordance with your staff-directed mantra of "setting a higher standard for ourselves." Well, we believe you should be demanding higher standards for the political culture as a whole. That's why we were so disappointed that you asked Councilman Rizzo to delay proposing ethics legislation that Councilman Nutter, we're convinced, would have supported. Those bills would have required lobbyists to register, would have extended the gift ban, and would have outlawed nepotism and moonlighting.

Again, we understand the rationale; you didn't want to alienate City Council. Certainly, the moonlighting bill would have done that. Councilman Kenney, for instance, has at least three other jobs - he works for Vitetta, an engineering and architectural firm that has the contract for the City Hall cleanup; he has a paid position on the Blue Cross board; and he gets paid to teach at Penn. And Councilman Green earns $150,000 per year courtesy of the Pepper Hamilton law firm. That happens to be the firm the city hired to represent it in the whole casino imbroglio.

But when you were on Council, you were less concerned about the ramifications and more concerned with standing up for what was right. In fact, you proposed an anti-moonlighting bill similar to the one you've asked Rizzo to table for the time being. And to be clear: No one's saying members of Council can't hold other jobs. But they shouldn't get paid by those who do business with the city - an elemental point, and one you once ably articulated. Of course, it's easier to take the high road, to champion politically tricky positions, when you're a councilman; but doing exactly that as mayor is even more paramount.

Then there's the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP, through which elected officials are eligible to "retire" for a day and claim a windfall pension payout. DROP was enacted to retain experienced employees - particularly police and firefighters - by giving them an incentive to stay in their jobs for four years after they might otherwise have retired. It never was intended to apply to elected officials. But of course, you know this. In fact, when Councilman Green proposed legislation that would close this loophole for elected officials (this being Philly, his legislation grandfathered in all those currently in the program on Council), it rang a bell - because it was virtually identical to the bill you proposed in 2004. But that didn't stop you from withholding your support of it, saying, "When I start talking about the DROP program, I'd like to be able to do it in a much broader context." C'mon, dude. There's nothing "New Day, New Way" about those kinds of political games.

During the most recent election, you pulled out all the stops for Hillary Clinton, as was your right. And you rightly endorsed Tony Payton in the State House, an able young reformer. Yet you were strangely silent when it looked like John Dougherty was going to become a state senator. How was it that Dougherty was able to get the support of the city's ward leaders? A mayor elected to clean up a corrupt government should have realized the backwards signal involved in sending someone to the State Senate who is under federal investigation and whose union has multiple National Labor Relations Board findings of misconduct against it. A strong reform mayor would have acted, would have spent some of his (considerable) political capital. And had you acted, it turns out, that would also have been smart politics: Larry Farnese's upset win would have been seen as a Nutter victory, instead of Vince Fumo's last laugh in his ongoing war with Dougherty.

That was followed by your borrowing a play from the game plan of your predecessor and nemesis. Much to your dismay, Mayor Street used to routinely violate the spirit of the Sunshine Act by conducting city business in private with small groups of Council members, thereby avoiding meeting with a quorum of members, which, by law, would have to be done publicly. But you did precisely the same thing when revising the city's budget. You went so far as to issue a Clintonian rationalization - that informational briefings were permitted in private. Again, let's keep it real. You're either for transparency in government, as you've often said you are, or you believe that the people's business is best conducted in secret - when secrecy happens to be convenient for you. Which is it?

This may seem like a harsh assessment of the first six months of your administration; if so, it may be because an acquiescent local media has been swept up in a honeymoon phase that, in the end, serves no one. We believe in the historic possibilities of your mayoralty, and we believe that we do you no favor by keeping our concerns to ourselves. You inspired us to believe that to transform Philadelphia, we need to change the way politics is practiced here. You ran for office as an agent of change. Given the issues we've raised above, when you held a $1 million fund-raiser at the Franklin Institute last month, we started wondering: Just how much of a change agent is Michael Nutter? There's nothing illegal about holding a fund-raiser. It's just unseemly to use the power of your new office to build a campaign war chest for a reelection race that's three and a half years away, and it's doubly unseemly if, when asked about it, you shrug it off by saying, "I'm a political person."

We realize you're a political person, but you're also more than that. You're a leader who came into our offices and talked to us about "the moral obligation" to challenge the status quo. As a result, we're still in your corner, so consider this a pep talk and a call to arms. You no doubt have a rationale for the steps you've taken, or not taken, on the issues we've raised. But the collective impression you're creating is that the bold, passionate straight-talker of the campaign trail is focused on avoiding confrontation as mayor. Perhaps you can be an effective mayor by being careful. But you certainly won't be a transformative one.

Our advice - which is worth precisely what you're paying for it - is to let it rip. Lead. You have the overwhelming support of this city; now is the time to spend your political capital and piss off some people. Remember the Tom Cruise character in Risky Business? Sometimes you've just got to say, "What the fuck." (We were just struck by a funny image of you in your skivvies in City Hall, rocking out to Bob Seger. Come to think of it, on page 59 of this issue, you are in your skivvies.) To that end, we'll close with the words from our May 2007 endorsement, in the hope that they stir in you the same sense of purpose you inspired in us: "We challenge [Michael Nutter] to do what Philadelphia needs: place principle over pragmatism, straight talk over obfuscation, the common good over the narrow interest. And if you elect him, we pledge to call him out should he fall short of walking the talk that inspired us to single him out as the best choice to lead this city."


The Editors