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Former Philly Mayor John Street’s criticism of Mayor Jim Kenney fueled by canceled city contract

Kenney says he was surprised at the animus Street showed last week while endorsing a primary rival, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

Former Mayor John Street (left) next to mayoral candidate Sen. Anthony Williams before Street endorsed Williams at Venango House in Philadelphia last week.
Former Mayor John Street (left) next to mayoral candidate Sen. Anthony Williams before Street endorsed Williams at Venango House in Philadelphia last week.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Twice a year since 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney has gone to Temple University to talk about city government and politics with the students in John Street’s class.

Kenney isn’t expecting to be invited back these days since Street, a fellow Democrat who served as mayor from 2000 to 2008, excoriated the incumbent last week while endorsing a primary challenger, State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams.

At the heart of Street’s animus is a city contract worth more than $14 million each year, awarded during his first term in 2003, renewed several times, and now coming to an end June 30. A subsidiary of PRWT Services Inc., founded and run by friends and political allies of Street’s, holds that contract, the largest by a minority-owned business in the city.

Kenney this week said he was surprised by Street’s turn, even for a former mayor who “has never been shy about expressing his opinion.”

The current and former mayor have not discussed the PRWT contract, which Kenney’s staff said is being terminated because the company violated a city ordinance requiring vendors to disclose any political contributions made to Pennsylvania candidates, parties, or committees by their executives and consultants.

“I had decided, coming into office in 2016, that I was not going to involve myself in any way with contracts,” Kenney said. “I don’t believe a mayor should be directing contracts to anyone.”

Street, who sat next to Williams in City Council’s chambers Monday as the state senator delivered testimony on the proposed city budget, later complained again about PRWT’s losing the contract. He shrugged off the company’s violation.

“My understanding is they had a different excuse every other day,” Street said of the Kenney administration. “First it was this thing. Then it was another thing. The reality is, I think it’s just making up excuses for doing something the mayor wanted to do.”

PRWT handles maintenance, janitorial work, security, and other services at City Hall, the Municipal Services Building, One Parkway Building, and the Stout Criminal Justice Center. The contract has meant average annual payments of $14.4 million from 2006 to 2018, according to Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for the mayor.

The city discovered in 2018 that company officials had made but not reported donations the previous year to City Council members Blondell Reynolds Brown, Derek Green, and Kenyatta Johnson, Gamble said. Another firm, not minority owned, was also disqualified during that review, she said.

PRWT was founded in 1988 to pick up business outsourced by the city. One of the first contracts was to provide parking services. Willie Johnson, who has supported Street’s campaigns, was one of four founders and now serves on the company’s board.

The board also includes Thomas A. “Tommy” Leonard, an attorney with strong Democratic political ties, former Gov. Mark Schweiker, a Republican, and Robert W. Bogle, publisher of the Philadelphia Tribune.

George Burrell, a former top Street administration official, was the company’s general counsel from 2007 to 2011 and still serves as its attorney. Joann Bell, another former Street administration official, is the company’s lobbyist.

Burrell says PRWT supporters are angry that the contract is going to a publicly traded, Chicago-based company, Jones Lang LaSalle, rather than to another minority-run firm. He also thinks that the punishment is too harsh for the violation and that the city could have taken a less severe action.

“If the outcome of this was this contract was going to another minority business, Latino, African American, or whatever, I would be disappointed but not complaining,” Burrell said. “The fact [is] that those particular issues could have been waived. Because they have nothing to do with performance.”

Williams has incorporated Street’s larger point into his standard stump speech, casting Kenney as out of touch, especially in the city’s African American neighborhoods. Minority contracting in the city has been a major talking point for former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, the third Democrat in the May 21 primary for mayor.

Kenney, who last week dismissed Williams and Butkovitz as “annoying gnats,” didn’t rule out speaking to Street’s students in the future.

“Maybe I’ll make myself available to some other professor,” he said. “If I’m that much out of touch, maybe he doesn’t want me back.”