Last week, when we debuted our Philly Corruption All-Star playing cards—collect ‘em all and trade them with your friends!—I wrote about the culture of corruption we’ve long tolerated here, a culture notable for its lack of shame and for good people who regularly look the other way in the face of systemic abuse. Of course, we focused on obvious cases of corruption, like the indicted and convicted pols whose perp walks account for so many of our headlines these days.
But there’s another type of corruption that also sets us apart, and it’s the kind that’s completely legal. In some ways, it’s more corrosive than good old-fashioned politicians on the take. It’s traditions like Councilmanic Prerogative, the near-absolute power each of the city’s 10 District Council members wield over development projects in their respective districts. It has in the past led to illegal acts—former Council members George Schwartz, Rick Mariano and Leland Beloff all went to jail for shaking down developers—but even when the privilege doesn’t lead to extortion, it constantly reenforces that, when it comes to Philly, all politics are transactional. It’s the product of an insider-dominated game, one in which the players seem to count on ho-hum reactions among voters to their brazen self-dealing.
Earlier this month, another example of this Philly Way reared its misshapen head when Council began its seven weeks of budget hearings, with 15 separate agencies appearing before our august legislative body in order to justify their spending of taxpayer dollars. There is one such agency that will, as has long been customary, be exempt from such transparency: Council itself, which doesn’t subject its own $17 million budget to public scrutiny. Kudos to The Inquirer’s Chris Brennan for raising this issue. “There is no way else to view this,” he writes. “Council operates under a different set of rules than it enforces for the rest of Philadelphia’s government.”
Forget about the hearing. How about just publishing the itemized $17 million budget on Council’s website? Put it up there for all to see—in an easily understandable format. Why wouldn’t you? You either believe you’re a steward of the people’s money—or not.
This hypocrisy is not new. Back in 2012, Brennan worked for me at The Daily News, and he pressed Council President Darrell Clarke on it then; Clarke promised to “enhance the ability for people to see what’s in Council’s budget,” while refusing to say how. Five years later, I guess he’s still working up that plan.
What is Clarke hiding? As is so often the case in the insular world of Philly politics, he’s looking out for his own little fiefdom. His Council budget, after all, is what enabled him to create a new position for his buddy, former Councilman Wilson Goode, Jr., after the electorate voted Goode out of office in 2015. Suddenly, Goode was back in City Hall, as Clarke’s senior policy adviser, making $135,000 in taxpayer money—$6,000 more than he was taking in as a Councilman.
That’s how Philly works—sweetheart deals from insiders for insiders, with hardly any transparency and even less accountability.
When, earlier this month, Brennan raised the issue of their institutional hypocrisy to Council members, they disrespected your intelligence by feigning puzzlement: Just how could they be transparent about their own budget? “Most of them focused on process,” Brennan reported. “Would Council ask itself questions, they wondered.”
No doubt, it’s a vexing issue. How could Council hold a hearing on its own budget? Who would ask the questions? It conjures up the courtroom scene in Woody Allen’s brilliant Bananas, in which, at the four-minute mark below, Allen the lawyer questions Allen the defendant:
We hear you, Council. Holding a hearing on your own budget must be terribly complicated. So forget about the hearing. How about just publishing the itemized $17 million budget on Council’s website? Put it up there for all to see—in an easily understandable format. Why wouldn’t you? You either believe you’re a steward of the people’s money—or not. If the latter, at least have the guts to say to your voters that how you spend their money is none of their business.Header photo by Andy Atzert via Flickr