The watchdogs are on a short leash.
In 2008, workers completed the almost decade-long process of scrubbing and strengthening City Hall’s exterior. Scaffolding came down to reveal shiny, white marble and granite surfaces that had been hidden by soot and grime for nearly the entire life of the building. Philadelphia should be proud for expending the money and effort to clean up City Hall and reveal its true appearance to the public.
When do we start cleaning up the inside?
A number of investigative and watchdog bodies actually operate inside city government: The Office of the Controller, the District Attorney’s Office, the Board of Ethics and the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Each office has its limitations, however, leaving oversight on certain areas of government thin to nonexistent. Specifically, City Council manages to largely escape scrutiny.
“Council managed to carve themselves out so they don’t have a heck of a lot of oversight,” says Zack Stalberg, president of the independent political watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “People will be careful about how they deal with City Council. It’s made up of 17 individuals who have the ability to get in your way.”
The Controller’s Office has the most jurisdiction over Council, conducting audits of the legislative body’s finances every year. The most recent report available, for FY ’07, came out with hard-hitting findings, like staff members not signing out for lunch or not being subjected to proper background checks. The reports for FY ’08 and ’09 should be released later this month.
“The Controller has limited powers in charge of oversight of City Council. It comes down to expenditures,” Stalberg says.
Complicating matters, the Controller’s budget is decided by the mayor and Council, bringing up fears of retaliation. “It’s a balancing act,” says First Deputy City Controller Harvey Rice. Since Controller Alan Butkovitz was first elected in 2005, “We haven’t had a problem. There’s always that potential because if we look at them the mayor or City Council could cut our budget.”
The District Attorney’s Office as well as the State Attorney General and the FBI have authority for criminal matters, but they aren’t actively investigating; somebody needs to come up with evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing before Seth Williams can start poking around.
The Ethics Board, meanwhile, mainly focuses on campaign-finance violations. The board did find minor infractions by then-candidates Curtis Jones, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Bill Green during the 2007 election. The board levied fines totaling $22,500 for 17 violations by Jones’ campaign committee and $2,250 for three violations by the Quiñones-Sánchez campaign, while Green’s campaign was not fined for its single violation in light of cooperation with investigators.
The OIG currently can only investigate the executive offices. Mayor Nutter proposed turning the OIG into an independent body with jurisdiction over all branches of government, but Council shot back with an ethics bill that would continue to exempt themselves from the OIG’s investigations.
“We are a separate but equal branch of government and can’t have the executive conducting investigations on the legislative body. You could get a mayor, not this mayor, that could use that as a tool to threaten people to get their vote,” Green says.
Council Majority Leader Marian Tasco, who wrote the legislation along with Green, agrees. “It’s not good business to have the mayor have these powers over Council. “ Oversight is already sufficient, she says: “You have the District Attorney and the Controller that have jurisdiction over our office. The State Attorney General and the FBI. There are a lot of people with jurisdiction over Council.”
Inspector General Amy Kurland doesn’t see the conflict. “The mayor would have no oversight over an independent office. He would appoint the Inspector General for a five-year term, who could not be removed except for cause. The term would not coincide with mayor’s four year term,” she says.
An example of the lack of oversight on Council came up when compromising photos of Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. with staff member Latrice Bryant on a 2005 Jamaica vacation were revealed in 2008, calling into question ethical violations for improper fraternization with a paid employee. However, there is no law against fraternization in Council or city government in general and the Ethics Board declined to investigate, claiming, “Because the city has no fraternization rules for the Board to enforce, the Board simply has no jurisdiction and no public role in this controversy.”
“It’s a good example of how Council has the freedom to operate in the shadows because nobody wants to take them on or has the power to take them on. If the same thing had happened in the executive branch, there would be greater accountability, but because it’s on the staff of Council it’s easier to dodge responsibility,” Stalberg says.
If the government isn’t policing itself effectively, that leaves the media. Currently, there are just four full-time reporters covering City Hall, three for the Inquirer and one for the Daily News. The Inquirer’s “Heard in City Hall” blog is a great resource, but the government is awfully large for four reporters. It makes one wonder what the hell our Council representatives do with their time.
City Council is a very insular place. Once politicians get in, they rarely leave.
Only three elected district Council members, whose seats are voted on exclusively by constituents in the district, have left the body since 1996: Rick Mariano went to jail in 2006 for taking bribes, while John Street and Michael Nutter ascended to mayor. There is slightly more turnover for at-large members elected by city-wide vote, where three of the seven seats have changed hands in the last decade. Currently, three seats are held by the sons of former Philly mayors: Green, Goode and Frank Rizzo Jr.
Council endures (or enjoys) minimal oversight, by the government, by the newspapers, and by extension, the residents of Philadelphia. So we just have to trust that our entrenched legacy politicians are acting in our best interests and aren’t causing trouble while they operate unwatched.
Council, however, also proposed legislation last week that would continue to exclude themselves from the Office of the Inspector General's jurisdiction.
At least we can all hold hands and agree: $3.3 million is not reliable. Maybe it’s $10 million! Maybe it’s two dollars. Who knows.
With the soda and garbage taxes too controversial, Council has resorted to new, slightly more progressive taxes to balance the budget. Not surprisingly, there are still problems.
Seriously. We get a chance to respond in kind May 18 on a ballot measure to abolish the BRT forever. See you at the polls.
What’s at the center of D.A. Seth Williams’ new love of Phish and The Matrix? Chronic!
The new iPhone app can answer all your questions on city government (conceivably).
Three things you may not know about the primary coming up on May 18—and why you should rock the vote.
Apparently, a Pew report finds, that we citizens hate dirty streets and trash more than we hate our corrupt city officials, our high taxes, our poor educational system and our jobless rate.
Like concerned parents, we like to keep an eye on our City Council members. With their still developing brains and bodies, our representatives can be prone to poor judgment and bad decision-making, especially once hormones start raging.
So the tax would affect the poor, but not for very long. Once that “70 percent tax” brings each purchase into focus—Is this jug of syrupwater really necessary?—soda, one hopes, would return to its traditional role: an every-so-often treat.
If only this website had been available years ago; we wouldn’t be in this property-values mess. Maybe this can also set straight the Parking Authority, City Council, Charter School administrators, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
Currently, the Ethics Board has wide discretion to dole out fines for campaign-finance violations. City Council is trying to change that.