On May 16, Philadelphians will take upon themselves the solemn duty to cast their vote in the primary election for City Controller.
Good heavens that was a boring sentence. I drifted off while writing it. My first draft literally read, “…take upon themselves the solemn duty to csdhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” “h” representing my face on the keyboard.
Should we look at the election for City Controller this way, though? Granted, it’s not one of the sexier races. But the next election for City Controller has the potential to reshape this important city office. To understand why, you have to understand what the hell a City Controller is. So let’s take a trip into the mildly interesting world of city controlling, doing our best not to hit faces on keyboards along the way.
The City Controller’s Office was created in 1854. This was the same year consequently that the first street sweeping machine was put into service in the U.S—on the streets of Philadelphia. That’s right, when Joseph Whitworth, the English inventor of the Mechanical Street Sweeper looked at our country, he apparently thought, “I wonder where I can try out my new machine on the dirtiest, most awful streets in America. Philadelphia, you’ll do nicely!”
The City Controller was formed out of the duties of the defunct County Auditor’s office. Which is pretty much the City Controller’s responsibilities in a nutshell. He’s the city auditor—kind of our own mini-IRS (the most beloved of government agencies). The controller also had to “countersign all warrants on the city treasurer” (the payment of city bills), and act as “a check on all heads of departments in matters of finance…mak[ing] reports thereon.”
The City Controller can use their power to chase corruption, as in the case of Alan Butkovitz, or they can renew focus on “identifying solutions that can save taxpayers millions of dollars—instead of playing the ‘gotcha’ game,” which is the case his challenger, Rebecca Rhynhart, is making in the upcoming election.
Controllers kept the books, reporting what money went into and out of the city’s coffers each year. Just for fun, we could look at the annual report from the controller’s department in 1882. Philadelphia brought in $13.4 million in revenue. This was from very nineteenth-century sources such as city boiler inspections, fire-alarm telegraphs, ice-boats, and “huckster licenses.” Philadelphia spent $13.2 million in public services so good on us in 1882 for being in the black. The controller was tasked with keeping tabs on all of these expenditures and publishing the reports “thereon.”
Fast-forward 135 years and the office of City Controller has evolved in the most…Philadelphian of ways. In an April 2013 debate, the sitting controller, Alan Butkovitz, summed up what he saw as the duties of the office by saying, “[It] has become a credible anti-corruption agency, and is referring cases to the FBI and US Attorney’s Office.”
Butkovitz’s Office of the Controller functions almost as a judicial arm. Part IRS, part Inspector General, part FBI informant. He feels justified in turning an auditor’s office into a flashy anti-corruption agency merely because there are copious amounts of graft going on at any time in Philadelphia, most of which involve city funds.
Butkovitz has used the controller’s office to focus on combating corruption, and he’s had some big wins. The hoopla accompanying these audit releases has also been pretty slick, by the way, almost necessitating a nineteenth-century huckster license.
- Sheriff John Green resigned in 2010 amid allegations that he was misappropriating real-estate sales and charging millions of dollars in bogus fees to the city.
- In 2016, the Revenue Department’s Mail Center was blasted in two separate audits by Butkovitz for time fraud and gross incompetency.
- Philadelphia charter schools came under Butkovitz’s fire for misusing and profiteering from their nonprofit facilities. This included the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology (grades K-8) which was doubling after hours as Damani, a nightclub operating out of the school’s cafeteria.
- Mayor Nutter’s administration was targeted in an audit alleging that $380,000 from the proceeds of the Philadelphia Marathon were used as a personal “slush fund” going toward, among other things, expensive trips to Rome, $11,000 in alcohol, and $700 worth of Uber rides.
There have been accusations that Butkovitz favors “low-hanging, albeit rotten, fruit” for his investigations. In the same debate where he characterized his office as a well-oiled anti-corruption agency, he stammered around the question of how the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority and “sexual predator” Carl Green came to be protected by “the mayors of Philadelphia” on his watch. (“He shut up when he should have spoke up,” fired back challenger Mark Zecca.)
The City Controller holds the power of audit. They can use that power to chase corruption, as in the case of Alan Butkovitz, or they can renew focus on “identifying solutions that can save taxpayers millions of dollars—instead of playing the ‘gotcha’ game,” which is the case his challenger, Rebecca Rhynhart, is making in the upcoming election.
Anti-corruption vs. Efficiency. Both approaches have historical precedent and, unfortunately for Philadelphia, both have relevance.
“It shall be the duty of the controller…upon the death, resignation, removal, or expiration of the term of officers who…may be authorized to receive or pay city moneys…to audit and examine the accounts and official acts of said officer, and if said officer shall be found indebted or liable to said city, a copy of the report…shall be filed in the court of Common Pleas.”
Butkovitz’s financial policing stretches back to the earliest days of the office.
“The controller shall communicate at all times to the mayor and the committees of Councils such information upon the condition of the finances and the accounts of all officers expending or receiving the moneys of the city as [her] department can afford.”
Rhynhart’s approach also finds historical precedent here. “An auditor should start with a decent relationship with the administration,” Rhynhart stated. “We should start from a place of collaboration.”
The Office of the Controller is the city’s designated auditor. You can accomplish this task by focusing on bridges of cooperation and efficiency, or acerbically and relentlessly exposing Philly corruption. It looks like the upcoming election on May 16 may turn out to be a referendum on that old adage: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Those flies weren’t embezzling millions of dollars, or running nightclubs out of elementary school cafeterias, but point taken.Header photo by Britt Reints via Flickr