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The Dawn of the Kenyatta Era

Is the new president of Philadelphia City Council a new boss, or same as the old boss?

Last week on 6abc’s public affairs show Inside Story, I played the skunk at the garden party.

Yes, I agreed, the early moves of Mayor Cherelle Parker have felt like the cool side of the pillow. (RIP, Stuart Scott.) Sure, showing up an hour late for the King Day of Service press conference might not have been the best look on day one, but once there, the tone was more energetic and hopeful than we’ve been accustomed to.

Besides, Parker’s appointments — while not exactly rolling out at warp speed — have been reassuring. Kevin Bethel as police commissioner is a homerun; Managing Director Adam Thiel sounds immensely competent; Alba Martinez (whom, full disclosure, I once pushed to run for mayor) is a superstar, even if Commerce Director is a surprise landing spot for her unique talents. Carlton Williams, who didn’t exactly shine at L & I or the Streets Department, heading a new “Clean and Green Initiatives” office is not exactly a change-agent choice, though no one bats 1,000.

But — and this is where my skunkery comes in — I’m not prepared yet to extend any Kumbaya feelings to City Council under new President Kenyatta Johnson. In fact, if you agree that basic values like transparency and democracy are imperiled by the business-as-usual, transactional way of Philly politics, there’s far more reason to worry about the ascension of Johnson than Parker, despite the protestations of my esteemed fellow TV panelists.

“I think part of the conversation is going to be, which is what we saw with Darrell Clarke’s leadership, which I thought was really smart, was to try to get some of the fights done not in public,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.

“That’s the most important role of the Council President,” agreed my brotha from an Indian mutha, Ajay Raju. “Keep the stitches together and do it quietly.”

I prefer sunlight

My friends have precisely diagnosed the problem, though they may be more tolerant of its outcomes than me. Like Darrell Clarke, Kenyatta Johnson is by nature anti-democratic. I think it’s a sign of a healthy democracy to actually engage in public debate, sunlight being the best disinfectant in a historically corrupt one-party town.

Yet, as reported in The Inquirer, even the way Johnson skillfully garnered his colleagues’ votes craftily avoided public scrutiny. “In rotating groups of four, Council members met with and voiced support for Johnson and the other three members who will be officially elected to leadership positions in January,” wrote Sean Collins Walsh. “That kept the total number of Council members in one room to at most eight at a time, one shy of a majority in the 17-member body — ensuring the lawmakers didn’t break state open meeting laws that prohibit them from gathering a quorum behind closed doors to discuss official business.”

And let’s not forget the scourge of councilmanic prerogative, the gentlemen’s agreement that gives district council members unparalleled say over development issues in their fiefdoms. Johnson is an expert practitioner of the dark art — having been acquitted last year of public corruption charges connected to it.

Even the way Johnson skillfully garnered his colleagues’ votes craftily avoided public scrutiny. “In rotating groups of four, Council members met with and voiced support for Johnson and the other three members who will be officially elected to leadership positions in January,” wrote the Inky’s Sean Collins Walsh. 

How obscene is councilmanic prerogative? Well, however you feel about the prospects for a Sixers arena on East Market Street, it’s unconscionable that the fate of a multi-billion dollar economic development project that will affect the fortunes and culture of an entire city (not to mention a region) essentially rests on the whims of one man: Councilmember Mark Squilla, from the 1st District, where the proposed arena is sited.

Like many of his colleagues, Johnson takes councilmanic prerogative even further. If an at-large councilmember — someone elected citywide — puts forth one of those fakakta resolutions honoring a do-gooder who happens to reside in Johnson’s district, stories abound of the councilmember calling foul in no uncertain terms. At-large members cower at the thought of introducing legislation without first kissing the ring of any district member who can lay geographic claim to its reach. Hell, we even have different zoning regulations for different districts. It all begs the question: Are we one city, or not?

Like Clarke, Johnson’s use of his deity-like powers over his district not only impedes progress, it fuels the perception that we’re really 10 different municipalities, each with its own de facto mayor, making deals and doling out land and perks, the common good of 1.6 million Philadelphians be damned.

A case study

For a freakin’ decade, the good citizens in the proximity of Washington Avenue in South Philly tried their damndest to make that roadway safer. Johnson, through his councilmanic prerogative powers, which reside nowhere in law, stood in their way. As Sean Blanda wrote for The Citizen, “It’s a story of one man cynically stopping the hard work and the frustrating-but-fair compromise thoughtfully navigated by a community of city workers, parents, students, volunteers, and activists.”

Blanda’s devastating account is just one example of the way in which Johnson lines up against actual democracy. And now the body will be his. It puts you in mind of some ol’ Pete Townshend and makes you wonder if we’re getting fooled again: Meet the New Boss/Same as the Old Boss.

On his way out the door, Clarke furiously spun his tenure, as departing pols are wont to do. Astoundingly, he doubled-down on his most shameful anti-democratic act — one which Johnson was fully on board with: Torpedoing then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2015 agreement to sell off PGW for a huge net windfall in the range of $400 to $800 million. In an Inquirer exit interview, Clarke told Walsh and Anna Orso that he feels vindicated because the company, Connecticut-based UIL, that was to buy the utility was sold to Spain-based Iberdrola soon after Clarke passively aggressively killed the Philly deal.

Let’s dissect this convenient xenophobia. First, plenty of public utilities are owned by foreign concerns, and they’re regulated just like any other company. Besides, UIL was going to move its headquarters to Philadelphia and it’s not inconceivable that, had the deal gone through, Iberdrola would have ultimately done the same. Do Clarke and Johnson really want to be celebrating such hostility to national and international companies that might want to relocate here?

Here’s the real story of the failed Gas Works deal. It’s all about Clarke’s — and, by extension, Johnson’s — knee-jerk disdain for the public process of democracy. They denied UIL and the Nutter administration even the mere courtesy of a public hearing — after having promised one. At the time, many political observers believed Clarke had reneged in order to deny Nutter a win so close to the end of the mayor’s second term

So let’s just recap: A Connecticut-based utility had reached an agreement with the Nutter administration to get our city out of the gas business — as virtually all other cities had already done. The net proceeds would have gone to relieve the city’s unfunded pension burden and thereby shore up our city’s ever-fragile safety net, something Clarke, in other contexts, presumably supported.

I remember talking to Michael West, UIL’s vice president, when, shell-shocked by Clarke’s intransigence, he pulled out of the deal. “We kept thinking we’d get our day in court,” he said. “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.’”

“I think part of the conversation is going to be, which is what we saw with Darrell Clarke’s leadership, which I thought was really smart, was to try to get some of the fights done not in public,” said Sharmain Matlock-Turner, CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition.

Welcome to Philly politics, Mr. West. Think about the message Clarke and Johnson had just sent to other companies who might contemplate relocating to Philly: Closed for Business.

Fast-forward now to Johnson’s ascension. How confident are you that this new Council is going to be open to creative lawmaking? Philadelphia is one of the few cities in the gas, water and airport businesses. (One study estimates that leasing the airport would result in a $3.8 billion windfall.) Don’t want to outright sell off? Fine. But will Johnson’s Council and the Mayor be open to otherwise creatively leveraging city assets in order to solve our own long-intractable problems?

Rather than just saying no to a public hearing, a curious, creative leader might look around for new ideas and engage in open discussion about them. He might go beyond the familiar confines of the public vs. private debate and take a look at Indianapolis, for example, where the water and gas provider is Citizens Energy Group, the nation’s only utility company founded as a public charitable trust — meaning that its sole responsibility is to serve its beneficiaries, ie, the community, not investors or politicians. It’s kind of like the NFL’s Green Bay Packers model of public ownership.

“The beneficiaries literally own our assets and we are just temporary stewards of those assets,” Citizens Energy Group VP of Customer Operations Curtis Popp told Customer Contact Week. “We’re obligated to serve them well, to be responsible with their dollars and deliver excellent service every possible way we can.”

What are the chances we get that kind of out-of-the-box policymaking in an uncompetitive, balkanized political system that tends to favor the connected insider over Indy’s type of “beneficiaries?”

This is going to be the challenge of Parker and Johnson’s leadership. Will you transcend mere transactionalism and rethink the practices that have held this city back? Parker seems to get the need for at least holding up to inspection some of the old ways of doing things.

Johnson? Count me as dubious. But, hey, how cool would it be if you’d break from the Clarke playbook and prove me wrong, Mr. Council President?


Incoming City Council President, Kenyatta Johnson. Photo by Albert Yee

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