You remember the PGW debacle, right? After two years of negotiations and $22 million in costs, UIL, a Connecticut-based company, last fall worked out a deal with the Nutter administration to buy our city-owned gas utility for $1.8 billion. Billion with a “B,” for one of the few remaining gas companies owned by an American city—one that also happens to have the highest rates in the region, among the oldest infrastructure in the nation, and a customer service ranking right up there with the country’s worst. A no-brainer, right?
We never got to find out. Because Council President Darrell Clarke refused to hold a hearing on the matter. “We kept thinking we’d get our day in court,” UIL Vice President Michael West told me at the time. “That’s Democracy. We kept saying to each other, ‘There can’t actually be a dismissal of a $2 billion deal with no public discussion, right?’ Well, wow. Okay.”
Fast-forward a few months. Suddenly, Clarke seems positively chatty on the subject. First came his letter to the Daily News last month. “After UIL Holdings Corporation abandoned its bid to purchase Philadelphia Gas Works, an energy firm based in Spain—Iberdrola—announced that it was acquiring UIL in order to ‘help the company [diversify] away from Spain’…” Clarke wrote. “…What would this have meant for PGW and its approximately 500,000 customers in Philadelphia?…It was always clear that buying PGW would be great for UIL. But we are more convinced than ever that selling PGW would have been a bum deal with a steep price tag for Philadelphia.”
Okay, let’s unpack the disingenuousness. First, had UIL bought PGW and had Iberdrola then bought UIL, it likely would have meant precisely nothing for the utility customers. The Spanish company would have purchased all of UIL’s assets and the commitments it had made, such as fully funding employee and retiree pensions and maintaining the current workforce for three years. All of this would have been vetted at the public hearing Clarke refused to have. Instead, Clarke now raising the specter of a scary foreign company does nothing but stir the flames of xenophobia.
But he wasn’t done there. Last week came a letter to the Inquirer. In it, he chided the paper for waiting two months to mention the sale of UIL to the Spanish company. “How could this be?” he wondered. “Could it be last month’s poll showing Philadelphians rejected the sale? As Philadelphia magazine noted, the opposition runs counter to ‘elite commentary on the sale’—much of it in the Inquirer.”
OMG. Clarke is referring to a Pew poll that showed 17 percent of Philadelphians approved the sale, 38 percent disapproved, and 45 percent had no opinion, hardly a “rejection” of the sale. But what’s truly striking about the poll is the high number of undecideds. Maybe, had Clarke allowed a public debate to take place, nearly half of the city would have taken a position—yay or nay. But apparently Clarke would rather have prevented the debate from happening so that he could, months later, act like it actually took place, and he had won.
Darrell Clarke has my grudging admiration. He is a diabolically good politician. When he decided not to run for mayor, it appears he decided to serve as mayor anyway, pushing a set of policies that would make the Council president a type of shadow chief executive, hiring his own lobbyist to engage with the state, floating a reorganization of a major city department.
There’s one problem with that. The dude doesn’t even answer to all of the city. He’s a district councilman. He wants the power to lead the city without standing before all its citizens and being held accountable.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There are 16 members of City Council who have enabled Clarke. Any one of them could have brought a motion for a hearing on PGW. But none did—including Jim Kenney, who now wants to be mayor after blowing that leadership moment. Council shares its leader’s disdain for the Democratic process.
That’s why we should be concerned by Clarke’s sudden spin of the PGW sale. The outrage, Darrell, was never about the deal; it was about your refusal to hold public hearings on the details that you apparently want to cherry pick now. It was about your hostility to Democracy, which is part of a pattern that includes your use of Councilmanic Prerogative, the fact that you don’t make public Council’s $16 million budget, and that you conveniently scheduled hearings on increasing taxes to fund schools for after Council members would face the voters.
Since Clarke seems to belatedly want to debate the PGW sale, The Citizen will host a Citizen’s Hearing, if he’s willing to face the public: We’ll get an expert or two and pair them with Darrell and have the conversation we should have had last fall. Here’s Darrell’s email address: Darrell.Clarke@phila.gov. Urge him to take me up on the offer and tell him what you think of this game playing of his. Copy us on your note to him at email@example.com and we’ll publish your speaking of truth to power.