If elected on November 7, Democratic candidate Christy Brady would not be the first female City Controller in Philadelphia. That was Rebecca Rhynhart, who unseated incumbent Alan Butkovitz for the job in 2017. Brady would, however, be the first Controller who’s spent her entire career in the Controller’s office — and likely the first to want to spend the rest of her career there.
“Having been in this office for over 28 years, I’ve worked with elected officials who had other aspirations,” she says. “My aspiration is to be City Controller. I’m a CPA. I love what I do.”
Brady says she loves her job so much that these past 10 months she hasn’t been there have had her “licking my chops” at the prospect of a return. Why is she not at work? In short: the resign-to-run rule.
In longer: In November, after Rhynhart resigned to run for mayor, Mayor Kenney appointed Brady as acting Controller. In February, a Common Pleas judge ruled Brady had to abdicate the acting role if she wanted to run for the job. Brady could have taken the matter to a higher court, but instead stepped down. (Career auditor of 17 years Charles Edacheril has taken over the temporary gig.)
In May, with backing from labor and the Democratic City Committee, Brady won the primary election with 46 percent of the vote, defeating Alexandra Hunt, a Temple grad with a background in public health and adult entertainment, and John Thomas, a 12-year veteran of the Controller’s office and former legislative assistant to former Councilmember Marian B. Tasco.
CPA all the way
Brady’s first boss, Jonathan Saidel — who went on to run for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania — remembers Brady as “very competent and diligent.”
Saidel was Philadelphia’s first certified public accountant (CPA) Controller. If elected, Brady would be our second CPA in the role. He served four terms, from 1990 to 2006, and believes a City Controller without an accounting license, “is like a D.A. who’s never done criminal work or is not a lawyer.”
Says Brady: “I like to reconcile.”
So does her Republican opponent, Aaron Bashir. According to Bashir’s campaign website, he has “a decade long experience in the field of finance and accounting,” an MBA from LaSalle, and has worked as a financial accountant for the City. Unlike Brady, Bashir seems undiscriminating about his political aspirations. In 2020, he ran and lost against Kevin Boyle for PA State Rep. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully against Brendan Boyle for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Brady says she’s never met Bashir. “I know I have an opponent,” she says, “but I’m not familiar with them.” In a city where Dems outnumber Republicans 7 to 1, could a CPA who spends time fretting over longshot competition be described as “wasteful?”
What’s a City Controller?
Most cities, governments and nonprofits call their controller a “comptroller.” Comptrolling is accounting and financial reporting — aka auditing. Philadelphia elects a Controller to oversee an office of about 135 staffers (Brady says they could use more) who evaluate the efficacy and efficiency of municipal programs and departments, report findings to the public, and make recommendations on how things should change. Every year, the Controller’s office is required to audit 40 city departments. After that, they can pretty much audit what they want.
The City Controller’s main objective: Make sure all City money — taxpayer money — is wisely spent.
During her nearly four years as Controller, Rhynhart delved into the economic impacts of homicides, measured Covid-time inequities in residential trash pickup, collabed with Councilmember Gauthier on a plan to combat gun violence, updated the city’s online gun violence mapper, revealed $33 million had gone missing from City coffers — and found another $923 million in City accounting errors — and released a detailed analysis of the, er, operations of the Philadelphia Police Department. That’s a lot, and that’s not all.
What a City Controller cannot do: Legislate, implement, or enforce these recommendations. That job belongs to City Council, the mayor, and the impacted departments.
For example, in 2016, Brady, then the office’s audit director, led a performance audit of the Philadelphia Fire Department’s brownout and firefighter rotation policies. Brownouts were a cost-cutting measure that, under the direction of Mayor Nutter, closed neighboring fire companies on a rotating basis, while the rotation policy switched up firefighter’s assignments for equity and development.
The audit’s findings: Both policies endangered lives and increased costs by increasing wait times for services.
But it wasn’t just the recommendations that were important: It was how they were released. Recalls Brady, “The City Controller [then Alan Butkovitz] and the mayor [Kenney] stood together the day that that report was released and implemented change.”
This was back when Butkovitz and Kenney were still bros, and as they were reversing a previous administration’s policies, the combined appearance was NBD.
On the other hand, says Saidel, that sort of united front kind of is a big deal. As Controller, it pays to know whom you’re dealing with, how to celebrate the wins, and how to gently, thoroughly, privately warn them about non-wins before taking findings to the media.
That does not mean pulling punches when punches are needed. After all, a Controller wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t challenging the status quo in and beyond City Hall.
Although she’ll be working alongside a new administration, Brady has already dealt with most of the players. “Being in this role, I’ve worked with the heads of the departments. I’ve agreed and disagreed with them. I have a relationship with Rob Dubow [the City’s Director of Finance]. We agree. We disagree. But we still can work together,” she says.
Saidel predicts Brady prefers to build, not burn, bridges. “She learned that you bring in the department that you’re reviewing, explain the recommendations you’re going to make, and you have a joint press conference,” he says. (Provided the party you’ve audited isn’t too angry to show up.)
The ideal Controller, he says, gets city leaders on board with their findings — and with a plan to “make meaningful change, save money, be more cost efficient, so productivity will go up.” A guy can dream.
Brady lists three priorities: Gun violence, the opioid epidemic and the underground economy. The first two have (somewhat clear) mandates.
She’d specifically like to further examine the distribution of funds in the Community Expansion Grant Program, wherein the City gave $13.5 million to 31 local projects working to combat gun violence. Brady is concerned about the non-governmental agency that’s been contracted to oversee the gun violence program — and to distribute the funds. Learning an outside group had oversight of such an expensive and potentially impactful initiative, “right then and there, my antennas were up,” she says. She wants to make sure dollars aren’t being left on the table, or anywhere else they don’t belong.
The opioid crisis is an obvious city failure. But … how could a numbers person help?
Brady told Ballotpedia she plans to follow up on Rhynhart’s 2021 audit of the HeathChoices Fund administered by the city’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services. The Fund delivers mental health and addiction services to Medicaid recipients. Rhynhart’s audit found that in 2017, Community Behavioral Health (CBH), which her report called the “non-profit quasi-governmental agency” had, while working for the City: 1. a screwed-up funding formula that paid providers for capacity instead of for actual number of patients, 2. allowed providers to default on payments to the tune of more than $4 million, and 3. owed the city $1.1 million.
For Brady, the underground economy is another, more personal, yet less visible matter. She says, “I was shaken when the Salvation Army at 22nd and Market collapsed. The city treasurer’s daughter perished. Now, when I go online and I see a building collapse, or big construction that’s being done that’s making the house next door unlivable …” She wants to do something about it.
Philadelphia has been undergoing not just a construction boom. Too often, out-of-town developers come in, build big, and vanish without paying city fees, while smaller projects that affect individual local homeowners — “little issues: L & I is not letting them build a fence because it’s within three feet of a corner of a garage,” she says — run into roadblock after roadblock.
“What about these big LLCs that disappear after a building is created and then we can’t go after them?” What’s more, “These LLCs list no employees. How are they constructing anything without employees?” she asks. Also: No employees means no wage tax, an essential pillar of city budgeting.
“These are red flags that to me, may be easy to see. But I need to go in to see where the problem lies,” says Brady.
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