Philadelphia’s managing director runs the day-to-day operations of the city, to make sure the city delivers the services it must. That requires coordination among major departments like police, health and human services, transportation, and infrastructure.
A measure of the office’s success is when you don’t know it exists. When it fails, though, it’s hard to hide. Case in point: The city’s recent response to protests, when police staffing plans were abandoned, leading to chaos and disorder, and the teargassing and arrests of protestors led to further chaos.
On Tuesday, Managing Director Brian Abernathy, the No. 2 in Kenney’s administration, announced his resignation. Abernathy, who held the position since January 2019, cited the burden that the job placed on his family.
Abernathy oversaw a large portfolio that included the Police Department and the coronavirus response. He was, with Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, the public face of the city’s response to the coronavirus, for which both should get good marks. But much of the city’s fumbled response to the first days of the Black Lives Matter protests lies with the Managing Director’s Office. In City Council, Abernathy admitted to being “dumbfounded by how out of touch I truly was.”
The resignation by itself doesn’t answer key questions that remain, such as who decided to abandon the original staffing plan of the first night of protest, who approved the use of the closed House of Correction to hold detainees, and who approved the use of counterterrorism units to respond to peaceful protest?
Getting the answers to these questions shouldn’t require an independent contractor or an internal affairs investigation. It requires an administration willing to be transparent.
At the end of the day, the buck stops with the mayor. The vast portfolio of the managing director gives the mayor wide cover. But the past few weeks call into question Mayor Jim Kenney’s level of involvement in the management of the city. He is the one who was elected — not the managing director — and he is the one who needs to step up and take responsibility for leading the city through this difficult time.
The events of the last month prompted questions about whether there is too much power concentrated under the managing director. Under Mayor Michael Nutter, the office structure was altered when he appointed deputy mayors responsible for individual areas. Given the crisis that the city is facing, this is a good time to reevaluate the portfolio of the office. Which, considering the challenge of finding a replacement amid these crises, may become necessary anyway.
The managing director will always wield considerable power. That is all the more reason to include members of the community in the selection process. Abernathy oversaw the opaque hiring of Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw — a process that has done her a disservice because her tenure had no community buy-in.
But there is a bigger opportunity for Mayor Kenney in Abernathy’s resignation. He can reassert himself as the leader of Philadelphia. That will require being more visible and transparent and taking responsibility for the actions of his administration. That’s the job people elected him to do.