Jim Kenney won’t speak to me. I tried. Once, we were side by side at the urinals in the Channel 6 newsroom bathroom. We were both there to appear, in separate segments, on the local TV show Inside Story.
“Hey, Mr. Mayor, how’s it going,” I said, as upbeat as possible.
“Uhhhh,” he grunted, staring at the porcelain tile in front of him.
“Good luck out there,” I said. Still nada.
Then, a few months ago, some supporters of The Citizen let it be known they’d received phone calls from him complaining about something I’d written. Granted, I have been highly critical. But, as a matter of policy here, we always include constructive, solutions-oriented suggestions with our critiques. I reached out to the mayor’s spokesperson, saying that, if the mayor thinks I’ve been unfair, I’d love to hear how, in the interest of always trying to get things right. I requested an audience, either on or off-record. He declined.
Now, after his July comments musing about how happy he’ll be when he’s no longer mayor, Kenney — long disengaged and seemingly beaten down by the tsunami of crises on his plate — seems to have authored his legacy as the mayor who quit on his town while it’s embroiled in murder, Covid, and racial equity crises. (What, you don’t remember Churchill during the London Blitz publicly fantasizing about returning to private life?)
I’m old enough to remember when Ed Rendell took office in City Hall, also during a time of crisis. The first thing he did was request evening airtime from local television stations in order to address the electorate that had just swept him into office, going on to paint a bold vision of shared sacrifice. But Rendell’s real project was to make the city believe in its government again.
Now it’s déjà vu all over again. There is plenty of time left for Mayor Kenney to reboot his administration and be remembered as a leader who left a locally patriotic legacy — his successor won’t take office for another 17 months, after all — by devoting himself to a program of putting wins on the scoreboard, getting across the message that someone in City Hall is on the job.
The mayor won’t talk to me, but I would still like to be constructive. Herewith, free of charge, is the speech Jim Kenney ought to deliver to the citizens of Philadelphia, announcing Kenney 2.0.
My fellow Philadelphians, good evening.
It has been the privilege of my lifetime to serve as your mayor these last six plus years. It has been a turbulent time. Like so many cities, we have been wracked by a series of crises. We’ve weathered a deadly disease, a murder epidemic, a long-overdue racial justice reckoning, growing environmental threats, and a stubborn and unacceptable poverty rate. I’m not going to lie. There have been times when I’ve felt overwhelmed and burnt out.
But then I think about the resilience you’ve shown, and I roll up my sleeves and get back to work. I’m the son of a Philly firefighter. You know what that means. We’re from Philly. We don’t give up. We rise to fight again.
That’s why, tonight, I’m breaking from precedent and, with just 17 months left in my administration, announcing a set of bold new policies. I’ve heard you. You want to believe in your government again. The Quality of Life Agenda I’m announcing tonight will not solve our most intractable problems. But it will show you that your city is fighting for you and putting you first. You’ll literally see the Kenney administration in action, working for you. And, as we’ve done with our historic investments in pre-K, this agenda will hand over to my successor a city poised to thrive after these years of crisis and tragedy.
First, clean up our city
I’ve instructed our Streets Department to draw up a plan for an unprecedented campaign to clean up our city. We’ll partner with anyone willing to join us in this crusade, including local startup Glitter, which my administration initially declined to fund as a pilot program, but which has since proven effective at crowdfunding citizen efforts to beautify our streets. With Glitter, we’ll recruit citizens to buttress our existing workforce in both proactive and rapid response ways. You’ll see street teams in every neighborhood, picking up trash so our citizens can feel pride of place again. You’ll see illegal dumping ordinances enforced. In “War on Litter” graphs on our website, we’ll track how much litter is taken off our streets every day.
We’ll do the same when it comes to potholes. In recent budgets, we’ve committed over $100 million to repaving and we fill between 30,000 and 70,000 potholes a year, but you haven’t seen or felt it enough. That’s why I’ve charged my administration with exploring partnerships with companies that, in other cities, have been hired to innovatively target the filling of potholes on more of a mass scale.
Second, better customer service
I hear from you often how frustrating it is to deal with city government. Too big, too slow, too unfeeling. In our remaining time in office, we’re going to focus on changing the way our hard-working city employees think of you — as customers. We’ve reached out to Brian Elms, who created Peak Academy in Denver, where he trained city workers in spotting and fixing inefficiency in their work.
He’s gone on to consult for cities around the globe, retraining municipal workers to, as he puts it, “see their work through the lens of ingenuity, curiosity and grit.” The result is innovation in areas you don’t think of as ripe for it, like pest abatement services and the mediating of landlord/tenant disputes. It’s not enough for me to say that a city government of some 25,000 workers are putting you first. We need to help those workers shift into that customer-centric mindset.
Third, work together on gun violence
There’s nothing that keeps me up at night more than the scourge of gun violence on our streets. We’ve made historic investments in gun violence prevention programs, but most of them will yield results only in the long term. What we’ve been doing in the short term, meanwhile, hasn’t been working, despite our best efforts.
We’re in a crisis and need to embark upon solutions that will yield immediate dividends. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing the formation of a weekly task force meeting consisting of myself, the district attorney, the police commissioner, the U.S. attorney, the public defender’s office, and community leadership — the type of multi-agency, cross-sector collaboration that has worked so well in Chester to lower gun violence rates.
We will put aside our differences and come together every week with our staffs to track what’s working, what isn’t, and to test new solutions and adjust strategy in real-time. We’re your leaders, and we’re going to own this. And I’ve asked Commissioner Outlaw, who has done a terrific job under very trying circumstances, to spend the next 30 days in consultation with former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and his firm, 21CP Solutions, to enhance our current efforts with a plan for further policing interventions best suited to yielding short-term results that you’ll see and feel.
Fourth, close the wealth gap
Finally, in a city that is 45 percent African American, only 2.5 percent of our businesses with payroll are owned by Blacks. That is unacceptable. If we’re ever to become one city that truly thrives, we need to invest in Black and Brown-owned businesses.
In the coming weeks, I will be convening business and civic leaders, taking a page from my colleague, Mayor Vi Lyles in Charlotte, North Carolina, who invited major stakeholder institutions to join her efforts and raise $250 million to invest in closing the income and wealth gaps between White and Black citizens in her city. I believe our corporate and nonprofit leaders here will respond in kind, because they know that, in the long run, they won’t succeed without a vibrant customer and tax base, and that requires not handouts but targeted investments to intentionally spread opportunity throughout our neighborhoods.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How are you going to pay for all this? After all, when Covid hit, I had no choice but to make painful cuts. But now it’s time to approach governing from an abundance, rather than a scarcity perspective. We have a $5.8 billion budget, we haven’t spent $400 million of the federal American Rescue Plan funds, and we have a budgetary surplus of nearly $500 million. We cannot spend just to spend, but we need to invest in order to grow the tax base and further opportunity. It’s time to invest in you, in other words.
I believe we can adopt most of our Quality of Life agenda within our existing budgetary framework. That said, I’ve also instructed our finance director to consult with Uri Monson, chief financial officer of the school district. Over a decade ago in Montgomery County, Uri oversaw zero-based budgeting, an accounting tool that made government far more fiscally efficient. I ran on zero-based budgeting in 2015, predicting that its adoption would save $90 million from our budget — funds that could be redirected to growth-oriented investments. I’ve asked for a report as to how zero-based budgeting can squeeze more bang for our bucks out of city government in our remaining time in office, and beyond.
Finally, much has been written and said about my personality, not all of it complimentary. I’ve heard the complaints — that I’m grumpy, that I don’t cheerlead enough, that I must not care. I’m the first to admit, I’m not a backslapping politician. I can only be who I am.
But, like fervent anti-Communist Nixon opening up relations to Red China, perhaps I can have some credibility in modeling a sense of optimism for you. I may not cheerlead, but I can fight. It really burns me when I read that, according to one study, Philadelphia is ranked as one of the nation’s least happy cities. Well, I’ve instructed my staff that I want to publicly honor citizens at City Hall every week who stand up and fight for this city. Because this is a great city. We fight for this city.
In my remaining time in office, with you by my side, that’s what we’ll be doing. Thank you, and good night.
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