The Shame of Our City

Council’s refusal to hold a hearing on a $1.8 billion windfall for the city is just the latest embarrassment from what was once termed “the worst legislative body in the free world.”

On Monday night, we were to have a Citizens Speaks event (please note, this event has been cancelled). Michael West, vice-president of UIL, the company that’s been chomping at the bit to write the city of Philadelphia a $1.8 billion check for our publicly-owned gas utility, was going to come and do what City Council had denied him the opportunity to do: Make his case directly to the citizens of Philadelphia.

Only, yesterday UIL finally had enough. After two years and $22 million in costs, they couldn’t get a single Council member to defy Council President Darrell Clarke and introduce a resolution to hold a hearing. Now, any company looking to do business with the city of Philadelphia is likely running for the hills. Not only is this no way to run a city, it’s no way to treat a company that was looking to invest billions in our region and establish a corporate headquarters here.

This morning, I spoke with what sounded like a shell shocked Michael West. He’d just received an education in Philly politics.

“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.”

Now, any company looking to do business with the city of Philadelphia is likely running for the hills. Not only is this no way to run a city, it’s no way to treat a company that was looking to invest billions in our region and establish a corporate headquarters here.

When it was announced last night that the deal was dead, the reaction of Council President Clarke and Mayor Nutter was telling: both immediately released dueling statements, each pointing the finger at the other. One observer close to the deal said, “This whole thing was very high schoolish.”

Keep in mind what is not in dispute. That Philadelphia is one of the few remaining cities in the country to be in the gas business. That PGW’s rates are the highest in the region and its customer service ranking is among the nation’s lowest. That the deal would have netted the city $400 million—the number in common between both side’s projections. That our gas pipes, the second oldest in the nation, are dangerous. That UIL—as it’s done in Connecticut and Massachusetts—would replace those pipes far faster than if the utility remained a city asset. That UIL committed to fully fund employee and retiree pensions and to maintain the current workforce for three years.

So…if it wasn’t the terms of the deal—which even Council’s own consultant and the head of the Pennsylvania Utility Commission endorsed—why did our august legislative body scuttle it without even holding a hearing? Look no further than petty politics. The Clarke versus Nutter storyline has a long history; when one man wants, the other refuses to give. The only thing new about this chapter in their dysfunctional narrative? The stakes.

UIL thought local patriotism would win out in the end. “In our experience,” West says, “in big, impactful transactions like this that challenge the status quo, people fight but ultimately find a way to do what’s in the best interests of the common good. They put aside personal feelings. Because the city’s interests have to win out over personal ambition.”

Ah, aren’t you quaint, Mr. West. But you overlooked one thing: This is Philly, where Democracy might have been born, but is hardly ever practiced anymore. Council President Clarke and his profile-in-courage minions have seen to that. And the Mayor—who deserves credit for putting this deal together—never waged either an effective public campaign (had he earmarked half of the windfall for our schools, he could have turned selling a gas utility into a populist movement) or LBJ-like private arm-twisting maneuvers to secure Council support. (In a $1.8 billion deal, you can’t find a million here or there to sprinkle around select districts in exchange for votes?)

But we were silent in all this, too—you and I. We get the government we deserve. We should be outraged by the anti-democratic nature of City Council. In fact, this is just the latest example of how Council—once famously termed “the worst legislative body in the free world” by then-Mayor Bill Green—disses its own citizens. Here are just a few other examples:

  • Did you know that Council holds hearings on the budget of every city agency—but exempts itself from such transparency? That’s right. When it comes to its $15 million budget, Darrell Clarke et al literally refuse to tell you how they spend your money.
  • How about the near-absolute power each of the 10 District council members wield over development projects in their districts? It’s called Councilmanic Prerogative and it’s not codified in any law. It’s a gentleman’s agreement whereby District Council members defer to the Councilperson in whose districts a project resides. It can lead to de facto extortion—or actual corruption. Former Council members George Schwartz, Rick Mariano and Leland Beloff all went to jail for shaking down developers. Only a handful of cities still practice the tradition, including Chicago, where nearly a dozen Aldermen have been imprisoned for abusing it.
  • Council takes the following breaks from, uh, governing: 13 weeks in summer, five weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, and one week each for Election Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, President’s Day and Columbus Day. They no longer get Flag Day off—reform, City Council style! That’s 23 weeks off while you’re paying these public servants a six-figure salary…so they can refuse to hold a hearing on a $1.8 billion deal.

Hope may be on the way, however. There’s a new class of Philadelphian, untethered to the way things have always been done by the usual political suspects. We call them “millennials, Gen Xers, and impatient, seasoned Philadelphians,” and they’re stepping up and refusing to outsource leadership. There’s a group of local businessmen who have formed something called Philly Rising, pooling their resources to fund new Council candidates. And some new candidates are emerging: In the last couple of weeks, a smart young guy named George Matysik announced his at-large candidacy and, just today, Paul Steinke, the Reading Terminal GM for the last 13 years, stepped down to run at-large next year for all the right reasons.

But none of it means anything if you don’t do your part. Which is where the Citizen comes in. We want to make it easier for you to have a voice. So if you’re feeling fed up with the contempt being shown you from Council chambers, here are the e-mail address for every one of them. It’s too late to salvage the $1.8 billion, but let’s make this a wakeup call. Contact these “statesmen” and let them know you’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore:

Darrell Clarke
[email protected]

Bill Greenlee
[email protected]

Wilson Goode, Jr.
[email protected]

James Kenney
[email protected]

David Oh
[email protected]

Blondell Reynolds Brown
[email protected]

Dennis O’Brien
[email protected]

Mark Squilla
[email protected]

Kenyatta Johnson
[email protected]

Jannie Blackwell
[email protected]

Curtis Jones
[email protected]

Bobby Henon
[email protected]

Maria Quinones Sanchez
[email protected]

Cindy Bass
[email protected]

Marian Tasco
[email protected]

Brian O’Neill
[email protected]

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