Gold Standard: Nutter is flipping off the city charter
"I'm respectful of the Home Rule Charter," Mayor Nutter said last week, after he circumvented a major component of the city's chief governance document that he'd sworn to "support, obey and defend" when he took his oath of office.
The mayor had just announced the appointment of Richard Negrin as his deputy mayor for administration and coordination. He also tacked on to Negrin the title of managing director.
But with that title comes little of the authority bestowed on the managing director in the charter, the 1951 reform document that delineates the authority and responsibility of key city executives.
Under the charter, the managing director, with the approval of the mayor, appoints the heads of the city's top service department (fire, streets, health, public property, water and L&I).
"The Managing Director shall exercise supervision over all activities of these departments whose heads he appoints. . . and shall be the contact officer between the Mayor and such departments," the charter states.
But under Nutter's organization chart, those department heads don't report to the new "managing director" but to four other deputy mayors. And those deputies won't report to Negrin but to the mayor's chief of staff - as will Deputy Mayor Negrin.
"This government has to evolve with changing times," the mayor said in justifying his decision to bypass the charter.
Ironically, a few weeks before the mayor's unilateral amending of the charter, the voters approved several changes to the charter recognizing "changing times," most notably elimination of the Board of Revision of Taxes.
These changes were made not by executive fiat, but with the approval of City Council and then the public - the process spelled out in the charter itself. The voters have shown a willingness to let the government "evolve." Since 1991, they've approved more than 20 charter changes, from abolishing the Fairmount Park Commission to establishing a Board of Ethics.
But Nutter, a stickler for transparency and accountability, decided to abandon the charter- change process when he defanged the city's chief operating officer, the managing director.
Granted, other mayors have found ways to do end-runs around other charter provisions to overcome some of its rigidity. But the managing director position has special significance.
It was created as a compromise between those who wanted a city manager-type of post, in vogue among reformers at the time, and those who wanted a strong mayor to succeed the weak mayor/strong Council structure that existed in pre-reform Philadelphia.
The job of managing director, who reports to the mayor, was created to assume much of the burden of the day-to-day operations of the government, leaving the mayor free to focus on policy.
The significance of the position was underscored in the charter by making the managing director the only mayoral appointee who can't be fired at will. (The mayor must prove cause for termination.) It was an attempt to separate the operation of government from its politics.
Clearly, the separation had limitations - the managing director was still appointed by the mayor. But Nutter has now limited it further by moving oversight of both operations and policy into the mayor's office.
Unquestionably, a mayor has wide latitude to organize his office as he sees fit. Each mayor adapts his own style to forge a working relationship among his managing director and the rest of his staff. But, until now, the managing directorship, with its mandated roles and responsibilities, has remained largely intact.
And for good reason. It's required by the charter.
Whether the mayor's deputy-mayor structure provides the appropriate accountability, alignment of roles and responsibilities, and clarity of command that large organizations require is an issue for another day.
For now, the mayor has created a terrible precedent for future mayors who may want to bypass other charter mandates by using the flimsy rationale that "government needs to evolve."
The mayor's actions also have to be evaluated in a larger context. Recent changes have made our strong-mayor form of government even stronger. The most recent charter change now puts the powerful tax-assessment process in the executive branch. And recent changes in campaign-finance law make it much harder to mount a viable campaign against an incumbent mayor.
Let's not forget that the city is now a one-party town, unlike 60 years ago, when the charter was approved. In imposing his will, Nutter has basically said, "What are you going to do about it?" And the answer, as he well knows, is nothing.
Phil Goldsmith writes for It's Our Money (ourmoneyphilly.com). He was managing director from 2003 to 2005.