Forging a caucus across region Nutter courting leaders in four Pa. suburbs. Nutter courts suburban leaders to compose a regional caucus
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Forging a caucus across region Nutter courting leaders in four Pa. suburbs. Nutter courts suburban leaders to compose a regional caucus

August 21, 2008

Patrick Kerkstra, Philadelphia Inquirer


What concerns could West Philadelphia and West Chester possibly have in common? Plenty, it turns out.

At least that seems to be the emerging view of both suburban leaders and Mayor Nutter, who are contemplating a new regional caucus of elected leaders that would grapple with problems that transcend municipal borders, including everything from air quality to economic development.


It is likely to be another six months before a caucus is created, and no details are available yet on what form such an organization might take. But Nutter has been actively courting suburban leaders, making visits to the county seats in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery and Chester Counties, and later hosting many of them at a Phillies game. The southern New Jersey counties are not likely to join initially, though they may well be invited in the future.


Nutter hopes that a regional caucus would eventually lead to a coordinated approach to traffic, tourism, homeland security, waterfront development and a long list of other challenges. One intriguing possibility: expanding the city's still-in-development 311 non-emergency call service to the suburbs. "When we organize ourselves as a region and we promote ourselves as a region, we're much more powerful," Nutter said in an interview last week.


So far, his suburban overtures have been warmly received.


"Previous mayors have paid lip service to the notion of regionalism, but it's just never happened," said Montgomery County Commissioner Joseph M. Hoeffel. "The fact that Mayor Nutter made this an early priority and physically came out to the suburbs really spoke volumes."


Whether Nutter's charm initiative, not to mention his popularity among suburban residents, will be enough to overcome decades of city-suburban rancor remains to be seen.


"There are a lot of structural reasons for that animosity," said Wendell Pritchett, Nutter's senior policy adviser. "The city and suburbs have competed for jobs, residents, for attention, which often results in tensions."

The bad feelings aren't all ancient history either.


The city's role in luring the Barnes Foundation from Montgomery County to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway did plenty to damage Philadelphia's relations with leaders in that important suburban county.


"It was done in a way that tore at the fabric of regional cooperation," Hoeffel said. "The county got bigfooted, frankly, by the arts world in the city and by the political leadership there in a way that's not particularly helpful."

Still, Hoeffel and other suburban leaders say they want better relations with the city, and note that they can teach Nutter a few things, too.


For instance, Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo was using the urban-design gurus at PennPraxis to create a waterfront plan for his community years before Philadelphia got around to asking PennPraxis to do the same for the city's Delaware waterfront. Bensalem also has two years' worth of data on what impact the Philadelphia Park Casino has had on the town, which could prove useful to Philadelphia, where two slots parlors are slated to be built.


The regional caucus model has already shown promise elsewhere, including in places such as Chicago, which also had a long history of rocky relations with its suburbs.


Given that past, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and his suburban colleagues moved cautiously when they created the Metropolitan Mayor's Conference in 1997, agreeing to avoid dealing with the most contentious city-suburb conflicts, such as expansion of the O'Hare International Airport.


Instead, the organization - which brings together more than 270 municipalities in six counties - has focused on areas where consensus is more easily reached, such as clean air, storm water management and emergency preparedness. It also played a key role in the Chicago area's 2016 Olympic bid.


Caucus executive director David Bennett, one of the organization's four full-time staffers, said that regular meetings between Daley and his suburban counterparts had increased the region's clout both in the Illinois capital and in Washington.


Bennett warns, though, that regional cooperation doesn't come quickly. He said it took time for Daley and Chicago suburban leaders to develop camaraderie and mutual respect. Even now, as a well-established organization, the wheels of regionalism can turn slowly in the Chicago area.


"The fact that so many different organizations have to approve everything we work on, that can be difficult because it can take a long time," Bennett said.


Nutter has a delicate job to do in creating a similar caucus in the Philadelphia area. Experts say the big-city mayor must take the lead for regionalism to succeed, while at the same time avoid being presumptuous or commanding.


"What this usually requires is a central city mayor, like Richard Daley in Chicago, to share the credit and work collaborative, allow sometimes the suburban counterparts to take the lead on an initiative so that they have the buy-in that's needed," said Steven T. Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Philadelphia and a proponent of regionalism.


Which is why Nutter says he is taking it slowly, focusing on building relationships instead of proposing bylaws for a new caucus.


"When Mayor Daley goes to the caucus, he goes in like any other mayor: He sits in the back of the room and when he has a question he raises his hand. I would expect to do the same thing," Nutter said. "I just want to play an appropriate role in getting it started."