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Mayor Jim Kenney tells D.A. and city controller they’re on their own for inauguration ceremony

Given the event's small price tag and the mayor's skirmishes with the elected officials being sworn in, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart said she hopes Kenney isn't being "petty."

The January 2020 ceremony to swear in City Council members and Mayor Jim Kenney, who had just won reelection, was held at the Met Philadelphia on North Broad Street.
The January 2020 ceremony to swear in City Council members and Mayor Jim Kenney, who had just won reelection, was held at the Met Philadelphia on North Broad Street.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney has canceled the city’s traditional January inauguration ceremony for District Attorney Larry Krasner and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, telling the newly reelected officials that they are on their own to organize swearing-in events due to budget constraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But given the relatively small price tag for the ceremony — the cost of the 2018 ceremony is about 0.001% of the current city budget — as well as Kenney’s public skirmishes with the two officials who would have headlined, Rhynhart wondered whether Kenney had another motive.

“This has always been handled as part of the city representative’s responsibilities, and it really is just disappointing that the mayor is deciding to just not do it,” she said in an interview. “The city is experiencing historical levels of gun violence and struggling with basic services like trash pickup. I hope he’s not being petty with something like this. It’s not the time to be petty.”

Rhynhart and Krasner learned of the decision in a Nov. 16 letter from Representative Sheila Hess, a Kenney appointee whose office usually organizes the event.

“Unfortunately, our Office was greatly impacted during the budget cuts last year, and therefore, our Office no longer has the staffing capacity or budget for us to plan the Inauguration ceremony,” Hess wrote in the letter, obtained by The Inquirer. “Congratulations on your election victory, and best of luck in the term ahead!”

Since Democrats took control of city government in the 1950s, the ceremony has usually been held at the Academy of Music, but it has also taken place at the Kimmel Center, the Convention Center, and the Met Philadelphia.

The city representative’s office had its budget slashed during the pandemic as the Kenney administration made widespread cuts while staring down a budget gap that at one point stood at about $750 million. An infusion of federal aid has allowed the city to restore its budget to more than $5.2 billion.

The cost of Krasner and Rhynhart’s first ceremony, in 2018, was $35,000, according to the mayor’s office. The administration does not have information on whether past administrations have ever declined to foot the bill, a spokesperson said.

Randall Giancaterino, who was laid off from city representative’s office during the pandemic, had a hand in organizing every inaugural ceremony from 2001 until he left the city. Giancaterino said he is not aware of any year in which the city did not pay for the event, but he said he can’t comment on the factors that contributed to Kenney’s decision.

The ceremony, he said, is an important part of Philadelphia’s democratic tradition.

“It has a history, and it’s an important part of the process to have a public presentation” of elected officials, said Giancaterino, who now runs his own public relations firm. “It’s a culmination of their efforts and election.”

The relationship between the mayor and city controller is often a strained one, as the latter official’s job is to investigate and provide oversight of city government. Despite Rhynhart serving in the early days of Kenney’s administration before running for office in 2017, that dynamic has held true, with Rhynhart’s office releasing critical reports on the administration’s performance and Kenney suggesting that the controller has politicized her position as a platform for a future mayoral bid.

Despite both being elected with the backing of the progressive movement, Kenney and Krasner have also seen their relationship sour to the extent that their difficulty working together has been cited as hurting the city’s response to the gun violence crisis.

Rhynhart said that if Kenney’s administration was concerned about budget issues, it could have offered a less expensive version of the ceremony, such as a small one in the Mayor’s Reception Room in City Hall, rather than washing its hands of the event altogether.

“The city representative has been doing this for decades and decades through all types of fiscal situations, and they could have easily planned a more scaled-back version,” she said, adding that her office has not yet settled on a plan for an alternative ceremony.

Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said the decision came down to dollars and cents, not politics and personalities.

“To be clear, there was never a ceremony planned, nor budgeted,” Lessard said in a statement. “We alerted the city controller, district attorney, and First Judicial District that due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting budget impacts, we would not be able to plan or execute an event for this year; the individual departments are free to plan an event of their choice.”

Krasner declined to speculate on Kenney’s motives and said he was excited to plan a reimagined event. The DA said he wasn’t ready to release details but is envisioning a more open, democratic affair than the stuffy gathering of bigwigs at the Academy.

“What this really means is that a pretty traditional event that has been done in a particular way for many years — and that is not as welcoming to people outside of politics as I would like to see — is not going to be the route we’re going to go,” Krasner said in an interview. “I actually think this is kind of a good idea. I think it’s a real opportunity.”

Krasner said he will plan an event in which he can speak for 30 to 45 minutes, instead of the brief remarks he was allowed to make in 2018, to lay out his priorities for his next term.

Voters, he said, “deserve a lengthy explanation of what we have done in the last four years, and a lengthy and detailed explanation of what we intend to do.”

Municipal Court and Common Pleas Court judges also participate in the ceremony. Marty O’Rourke, a spokesperson for Philadelphia’s First Judicial District, said that this time the judges will each make their own arrangements for swearing-in events.

Staff writer Ryan Briggs contributed to this report.