I’m always hopeful on election day. Even here, in Moscow on the Delaware, there’s something about citizens showing up at the polls that reminds us of the possibilities of self-government. At the very least, the mere act of everyday, taxpaying men and women making their voices heard conjures the famous Churchill quote: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
But it’s been 17 days, and doesn’t it feel like much longer? Because we’ve been awash in headlines that, taken together, convey the impression that our voting exercise was just that, a type of charade, not unlike in other countries, where Democracy is more performance than practice. I’m going to run through said headlines; you tell me if the inescapable conclusion is that, post-election, our elected leaders have doubled down on some weird combination of incompetence, venality, and an overall disdain for widespread political participation.
Kenyatta’s Chutzpah. Just four days after sailing to reelection, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, the face of Councilmanic Prerogative, introduced a bill that would ban or regulate balconies and bay windows across Point Breeze and Grays Ferry, an attempt to address gentrification.
Forget for a moment that it could be argued that Johnson’s showering of sweetheart land deals on campaign donor developers has actually been one of the drivers of said gentrification; if he really wanted to curb gentrification, maybe the best way to start is to abide by the old “First, Do No Harm” adage.
No, the real outrage here has less to do with gentrification, and more to do with the arrogance of power run amok. Think of it: We just had an election. Weren’t the voters owed an opportunity to hear Johnson’s (hare-brained) idea debated, and then afforded the opportunity to pronounce judgment on it at the polls? Isn’t that kind of the way this whole voting thing works? Instead, by dropping his bill after his reelection, Johnson portrayed a contempt for local Democracy.
We’ve tried the Philly Shrug. We’ve tried the soft bigotry of low expectations. How about we actually start demanding an end to the spin, an end to the inside game, and an embrace of founding ideals like transparency and competence in government?
And what’s with the idea of passing laws that only apply to one distinct part of the city? The whole problem with Councilmanic Prerogative is that we’ve allowed District councilmembers to become mini-mayors, bestowing upon highest-bidders the right to build in their fiefdom. Now we’re going to, in effect, enable them even more with distinct legislative powers, too? Are we one city, or a federation of 10 separate colonies? You gotta love progressives like Johnson who, while denouncing Trump, mimic his authoritarian tendencies.
Election? What Election? So, what do you think happened in Hackadelphia after voters threw out Register of Wills Ron Donatucci, the 40 year incumbent and longtime face of patronage in city government?
Did the powers that be, chastened, usher in a new day of transparency and reform? Or did they immediately explore ways to unionize the 80 at-will employees of Donatucci’s staff—a way to ignore the will of the people and insure the status quo?
Do I even have to ask? See, literally every employee in the Register of Wills office has a political sponsor, which is why Democratic Party boss Bob Brady started making noise about unionizing, telling the Inquirer that Donatucci’s office is “a great example of how good patronage can be.”
Actually, I will give Brady this: Donatucci’s office has, by all accounts, been efficiently run compared to the rest of city government. (Of course, that’s kind of a low bar). But the point is that unionizing that office now, after the election, is a slap in the face to every voter—71,000 of them—who pulled the lever for challenger Tracey Gordon. Brady says it would be a “mistake to come in and fire people.” But, in a Democracy, as opposed to a banana republic, that would be Gordon’s mistake to make. Brady’s move to unionize the Register of Wills office is nothing less than an attempt to overthrow the results of an election by limiting the power of the new officeholder to enact reform. If Trump tried something like this, Brady would rightfully be at the podium, calling him a tyrant.
Here’s what I hope happens. I hope Tracey Gordon not only fires all 80 of the workers currently staffing the office, but replaces them with returning citizens. And, while she’s at it, if she really aspires to reform, she should announce her opposition to her own reelection and support making her antiquated office an appointed, rather than elected, position.
How Is This Guy Still Drawing a City Paycheck? In one of the largest assessment appeal cases in our history, the owners of about 700 commercial properties are claiming that the City violated the state’s uniformity clause by targeting them for increases, while failing to do the same when it came to residential properties, as constitutionally required.
In testimony last week, Finance Director Rob Dubow hemmed, hawed and dissembled when he was confronted by a raft of smoking gun evidence pretty much showing this to be the case, including his own emails and testimony before City Council.
We’ve been awash in headlines that convey the impression that our voting exercise was just that, a type of charade, not unlike in other countries, where Democracy is more performance than practice.
Seems like a pretty open and shut case, but a verdict from Senior Common Pleas Court Judge Gene Cohen that the city knowingly violated the uniformity clause would carry with it severe ramifications—like the potential jeopardizing of $63 million in city and School District funding.
However Cohen comes down, the case ought to once again shine a light on Dubow’s job performance, and on Mayor Jim Kenney’s explicitly stated refusal to hold high level city government officials accountable. Dubow, after all, according to Dubow himself, was the official at whose desk the buck stopped when the city couldn’t find $33 million in its bank accounts and hadn’t reconciled seven of its accounts for years. The much-disgraced Office of Property Assessments—with its assessment hikes that really amount to backdoor tax increases on an unsuspecting electorate—falls under his watchful eye, as well.
Last year, some eight months after Councilman Allan Domb’s insightful cross examining of Dubow and City Treasurer Rasheia Johnson revealed the fissures in the city’s accounting practices, there was this line in an Inquirer story: “As to the question of whether anyone will be fired over the $40 million in accounting mistakes, [Kenney Chief of Staff] Engler said: ‘No, that’s not how we operate.’”
Ah, yes, the city that holds no one accountable. Fast forward to last week, when Dubow tried to explain away his own emails and Council testimony that explicitly stated the city would seek to raise only commercial assessments, spinning them as “shorthand for where we thought the primary changes [in value] would be based on that year’s reassessment.”
O-kay. Again, the hypocrisy: When Donald Trump’s administration plays fast and loose with facts and numbers and spin, Kenney rightly holds it to account. But when his team does the same, that’s when we hear that, when it comes to accountability, “that’s not how we operate.”
Does Anyone Here Own A Tape Measure? Finally, remember that six-neighborhood pilot street-sweeping plan that was rushed out just before the election? As we wrote at the time, the plan to use blowers presented real environmental hazards. (God forbid anyone should be asked to move their cars).
Well, as first reported by WHYY, now it turns out that the trucks the city purchased at a price tag of $2.7 million for just this purpose are too big to fit on 10 percent of the pilot program streets. They’re going to have to buy more trucks.
There doesn’t appear to be any malfeasance here, just incompetence. I guess that’s progress, of a sort. But it ought to raise the question: How much confidence do you have in an administration that was just re-elected to a second four-year term to do the everyday blocking and tackling of running a government? And if you’re shaky about that, how optimistic are you that Kenney in term two will make a dent in the country’s worst poverty rate and our exploding murder rate, which is up 10 percent year-over-year as of yesterday, following yearly hikes of 15 and 8 percent, respectively?
When Donald Trump’s administration plays fast and loose with facts and numbers and spin, Kenney rightly holds it to account. But when his team does the same, that’s when we hear that, when it comes to accountability, “that’s not how we operate.”
Here at The Citizen, we try to be constructive. Well, here goes: We’ve got to raise the bar. After the election, numerous media outlets reported our 23 percent turnout as a good thing, because it was higher than the 18 percent who voted in 2017’s municipal elections. One headline read: “‘Local elections matter’: Voter turnout wows Philly in 2019.”
Uh, no it didn’t. If we don’t demand better of our electeds, and of each other, we’ll never get better. We’re going to have a new Council and this Mayor for four more years. Here’s a novel idea: We’ve tried the Philly Shrug. We’ve tried the soft bigotry of low expectations, to quote a former president who looks a helluva lot more statesmanlike of late. How about we actually start demanding an end to the spin, an end to the inside game, and an embrace of founding ideals like transparency and competence in government?
I know, I know. There I go dreaming again. But, summoning John Lennon, I’m not the only one. The elections of Rebecca Rhynhart, Jamie Gauthier, Rochelle Bilal, and Tracey Gordon, not to mention some state representatives who seem to value problem-solving over ideology, has got me, despite all the frustrations, feeling all Sam Cooke: A change is gonna come.Photo illustration by Dan Shepelavy