After Seesaw First Term, Philly Mayor Nutter Runs Unopposed

After Seesaw First Term, Philly Mayor Nutter Runs Unopposed

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In a contradiction that seems plausible only in Philadelphia, it’s looking increasingly as if Michael Nutter will face an uncontested downhill slide into a second term as the city’s Mayor despite the fact that most voters say they don’t want him there.

A poll conducted in February by Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Opinion Research, suggests that the Mayor is wildly unpopular, though it’s not entirely clear why.

While less than a third of those surveyed say Philadelphia is worse off than it was four years ago, only 30 percent think the Mayor has done a good job, and more than half think it’s time for a change of administration. Yet when pitted against challengers including City Councilman Bill Green and businessman Tom Knox, Nutter stills comes out on top, suggesting either that voters are not convinced someone else can do any better or would rather “dance with the devil they know” than one they don’t. That may be one reason no one besides Milton Street has gone on record challenging the Mayor in the coming primary or general elections.

But to equate voter dissatisfaction with administration failure is being overly simplistic. It discounts some important variables: like the fact that within months of taking office, the Mayor faced one of the worst economic disasters the city (and country) has ever seen, and yet still managed to get some things done. For that, some say he should be cut some slack.

“I think a lot of people are really hard on him given how just unlucky his timing was,” said Chris Satullo, head of news and civic dialogue at WHYY and former chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial page. “He was in office, and then boom [the economic crisis hit].

Unfortunately, incumbents are more often criticized for their foibles than praised for their victories, and so Mayor Nutter is invariably remembered as the person who tried to shutter city libraries, and proposed charging people to drink soda and have their trash picked up.

Still, hidden among those unpopular initiatives, local pundits say, are some notable accomplishments.

“I think he’s made ethics a higher priority and more of a reality in City Hall than any mayor I can remember,” Committee of Seventy president Zach Stalberg told the Philadelphia Daily News in January.

“There’s been a real focus … on ethics and after what we went through with some previous mayors you think that would be appreciated more,” said Satullo. “I think what he’s done around the environment and sustainability, the whole Greenworks thing, has been really impressive, and you could give him good marks for wanting to do the right thing around Philly311.”

Even the Mayor’s harshest critics, like former candidate for controller Brett Mandel — who was reportedly courted by both Republicans and Democrats as a potential challenger to Nutter — are willing to give credit where credit is due.

“There is a heightened level of competency in some agencies, like the Police [Department] and the prisons, and [the Department if Licenses & Inspections] seems to be run more professionally than in the past, and this administration has been committed to routing out petty corruption in the government; all of those things are good,” said Mandel. But, he added, “Those are relatively minor accomplishments compared to the grandiose change and transparency envisioned by the Mayor.”

Indeed, a big part of the Mayor’s popularity crisis seems to be tied to the feeling that despite some important victories his administration has fallen short of delivering the “Renaissance” he envisioned in 2007 — a lofty goal indeed, and one that was perhaps destined to fail in a municipality as large and as broken as Philadelphia.

After taking office Mayor Nutter launched an ambitious 2009-2014 Reform Agenda to look at ways to “improve efficiency, reduce costs and provide better services to citizens.”

Among the things the Mayor’s Office promised was a review of six departments, accounting for roughly 16,000 city employees, to find ways to cut costs and improve service. The city commissioned 12 “Reform Teams” to conduct the departmental reviews, and began partnering with the private sector to develop strategies to cut costs and increase service levels. Nonetheless, according to the Mayor’s latest budget numbers, the cost of running the city has remained static.

The administration released its last update on the progress of the agenda — a 131-page, department by department breakdown — two years ago, in February 2009.

What’s more, PhillyStat — the program that was implemented to ensure the transparency of the process through regularly scheduled and publicly broadcast meetings with department heads — was shelved last year with the departure of Camille Barnett as managing director. It was slated to be revamped and reintroduced early in 2011, but that deadline has been pushed to spring.

The Mayor’s own list of accomplishments includes his much-touted Philly311 contact center for handling community issues. In a recent interview with blogger Christopher Wink of Technically Philly, Councilman Jim Kenney, while praising its goals, said the service is understaffed, needs better technology, and in any case, is of little use without PhillyStat to back it up.

“My opinion, well, the overall purpose is good. It achieved a lot of the things we wanted it to. [But] it needs to be complimented by PhillyStat to be the management tool that we envisioned it being,” he said.

Then there’s the fact that some of the Mayor’s most ambitious goals, like cutting the high school dropout rate and increasing college graduation, are beyond his purview as head of the executive.

“You want the mayor to be engaged with education, but he’s inviting himself to have his tenure judged by a measure that he’s not really going to be able to control,” said Satullo. “That seems to me to be poor politics and poor leadership.”

Of course for much of his tenure, Mayor Nutter has been tasked simply with keeping the city from collapse, which he did; throughout 2008 and 2009 we were, after all, in midst of the worst recession in nearly a century, which may explain why he didn’t do more.

“We did manage a serious dropoff in revenue and that’s the mayor’s primary job to make sure we have a balanced budget, so it is fair to say that that would have naturally distracted his energies from a totally proactive agenda to a much more reactive agenda, so I think that’s sort of a fair analysis,” said Councilman Bill Green. “By necessity he had to be reactive and not proactive.”

The bottom line, commentators say, is that the Mayor simply bit off more than he could chew, and he didn’t do a very good job of communicating that to his constituents once the financial crisis hit.

“I think it’s fine for an administration to have ambitious goals and work at a lot of things but I don’t think it helps much if the mayor doesn’t focus his message to the public about what he’s mainly about and I think everybody, even people inside the administration, would agree the [Mayor’s] messaging hasn’t been real effective,” said Satullo.

Mandel, pulling no punches, takes it one step further.

“People in Philadelphia don’t like to be lied to,” he said. “All we want is to be treated like we’re not idiots and to level with us. So when the Mayor says a lot of the things that he is saying, I think the sense is that he’s not being truthful with us.”

Still, even those critical of Mayor Nutter appear willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he’s ready to pick up where he left off when the economic crisis hit.

“I really want to see him be proactive and get back to the 2007 promises,” said Green.

Most everyone agrees the most important thing he needs to address is resolving the city’s pension and healthcare crisis by negotiating with the District Council 33 and District Council 47 municipal unions.

“We have to deal with that and we haven’t,” said Mandel. “That’s not to say the Mayor has to break the union, or has to do something unilaterally, but it means that the Mayor has to be diligent about sitting down and getting a negotiation done and sitting at the table until he achieves what he needs.”

On Thursday in his 2012 budget address, the Mayor said he would meet with union heads to sign new contracts “as soon as possible.”