Twelve years ago I became the Inspector General for the City of Philadelphia. I had been a federal prosecutor for 24 years and during that time I prosecuted city employees in many departments for bribery and other corrupt actions, at one point including almost the entire plumbing inspection unit of the Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Paying city employees to get city services that our tax dollars already covered was simply the way things were done in Philadelphia and we lived with the reputation of being corrupt and contented.
Then, in 2008 Michael Nutter was swept into office as mayor after running on a clean government and reform platform, and he brought me into city government. Mayor Kenny has continued this emphasis on integrity. Now, as I leave the Office of Inspector General (OIG), I believe the City has reached a major milestone. We are finally shedding that corrupt and contented reputation. Bribery and payoffs are the exception rather than the rule and we have moved away from a culture of corruption, gradually becoming a city that cares about operating with integrity.
Today we have a Chief Integrity Officer, a Board of Ethics and an Inspector General’s office that work together to ensure honesty. We collaborate with the Controller’s Office. We are partners with federal, state and local law enforcement and, above all else, we police ourselves. Yes, there have been indictments and we have disciplined and fired city employees. There will always be people who try to get around the system – that’s human nature. But now, more often than not, honest city employees turn in money from those who have tried to bribe them instead of soliciting those bribes. And we are sending the message that city employees are not for sale, that we can and will clean our own house.
But integrity is not like picking up trash or filling a pothole. It is more elusive and has to influence everything we do. We must be vigilant every day and continue to reinforce the message that integrity is our bedrock principle. We must constantly remind ourselves and our colleagues that working in public service isn’t merely about earning our paychecks; because we work for the public, we also must earn the public’s trust by doing our jobs the right way – openly and honestly.
In this regard, Philadelphia is a more ethical, transparent and accountable city than it has ever been. But we cannot go backward – we must continue to move forward.
It is time to change the Home Rule Charter and make the Office of the Inspector General a permanent City department with broad jurisdiction. Without a permanent OIG, a mayor could misuse the office for political purposes, drastically reduce its budget or eliminate the office altogether. Large cities like New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and Miami have recognized the success of the Philadelphia OIG model, but they have moved forward making their Inspector General offices permanent with broad jurisdiction. We should do the same.
This charter change begins with City Council. And now, more than ever, with new council members beginning new terms of office, let’s make an honest government a citywide priority.
Amy Kurland was Philadelphia’s longest-serving Inspector General. She recently left the position to join the team at Bloomberg Associates.