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City Councilwoman Marion Tasco was in high dudgeon the other day, facing down Everett Gillison, Mayor Michael Nutter’s chief of staff over the issue of delayed repairs to a Recreation Center in her district. The $3.5 million had been set aside to redo the Sturgis Rec Center but the project seemed frozen in ice, with no work done for months.
Tasco knew what was up. In her role as a member of the Philadelphia Gas Commission, she had opposed the mayor’s plan to sell the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works to a private utility.
As Tasco saw it, the slowdown in repairs was in direct retaliation for her “No” votes on the Gas Commission. So when Gillison tried to get a few words of explanation out at the budget hearing the other day, Tasco cut him off. “Just stop — because all of that is bullshit,” she said testily.
When first asked about it, Mark McDonald, the mayor’s press secretary, denied any link, saying the delay happened because the administration was focused on “other pressing issues.” He didn’t say what those issues were. Maybe he meant the mayor was busy taking his pants to the dry cleaners.
It was a minor tiff over a minor issue but it allows me to make an important point.
I fervently hope that the mayor did delay the repair work in retaliation for Tasco’s stand on the sale of PGW. I hope he was sending her a message that “if you kick me on an issue of importance to me, I will kick back.”
I hope he was exercising — at long last — the political power granted a mayor to enforce his will on what is supposed to be a subordinate council. And I hope, in these finals years of his term, that he does it again and again. We need him to lead — and if that means using the political tools at his disposal, so be it.
It’s odd, given his background as a ward leader who understands the give-and-take of politics, but Michael Nutter has — how to put this? — not shown sufficient spinal strength when it comes to facing his opponents. In short, he’s often wimped out. Not in any big or craven way, but just enough to send a message to (for example) the municipal unions and City Council that they can oppose him with impunity.
As a result, as he heads toward his final years as mayor, he faces the worst fate of any elected official — irrelevancy. He risks becoming someone who is forgotten but not gone.
I have seen this play before. In Wilson Goode’s second term, after he was damaged by the MOVE debacle, he became the political equivalent of a ghost. He would speak but no one heard him. He would enter a room but no one would see him. The power he had in such abundance in his first term seeped out, flowing to City Council.
In simpler times, politics in this city resembled a pyramid, with power flowing from the pinnacle — the mayor’s office – down through the ranks of elected officials and the Democratic organization. The mayor’s principle tool was patronage — mostly city jobs in those days; later with pin-stripped patronage — the awarding of contracts for city services, picking law firms and investment houses to handle bond issues, etc.
In the days of Mayor James H.J. Tate, who was a ward leader, if a city councilperson, who was also usually a ward leader, decided to oppose the mayor, he could imperil the jobs of the councilperson’s patronage workers in city departments.
It turned out to be a very effective method for enforcing discipline.
That was then and this is now. We still have patronage jobs, but not enough of them to make a difference. We still have pin-stripped patronage, but the “pay-to-play” scandals of recent years have had the tonic effect of lessening it.
These advances have been applauded as a step away from the bad old days. But what has replaced it? Now the mayor has far fewer tools at his disposal to impose his will. He has to use different methods or, like Nutter, he can eschew playing the game.
The mayor has done a good job of carving niches for himself on issues no one opposes. He is for a “Green” city. He is against murder. He believes a good educational system is important to the future of the city. He says the right things. But what does he actually do?
When it comes to the hard stuff, he has failed to engage. For instance, I have criticized him — early and often — for failing to confront the municipal unions over a new contract in the second year of his first term, when the city’s boat was being swamped by the Great Recession. He wasted that crisis. Instead, he kicked the issue down the road (presumably until he was re-elected) before facing the unions down. He is now trying to get them to agree to a contract with concessions on benefits and work rules, but it may be too late.
In the meantime, Council is being Council. It is taking the newly passed zoning code and shredding it into tiny pieces — so that Council members’ power over zoning matters in their districts remains intact. Similarly, (God help us) it is taking the lead in deciding the final form of the city’s new tax assessment system, and the budget, and city policy on any number of issues, large and small. And now the Council President says he wants a seat at the table in union negotiations.
The makers of City Charter did not envision this. The charter was written when the pyramid of power was intact. The makers did not want Council to be a co-equal branch. They wanted a strong mayor/weak Council form of government.
But, the makers of the charter apparently never asked themselves: What happens in a strong-mayor form of government when you have a weak mayor?
The mayor becomes a player, but not the leader. Competing forces arise and seize pieces of power — Council and the city’s union establishment, to name two.
We end up not with a pyramid but with a Tower of Babel.