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Crisis a stopper to Nutter's year of successes

Mayor Nutter stood at the center of a hot and cramped room at the Kingsessing Recreation Center three weeks ago, repeatedly interrupted by hissing, booing and foot-stomping as he pleaded his case.

Mayor Michael Nutter holds a news conference on the city's budget problems at City Hall on Nov. 6.  (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)
Mayor Michael Nutter holds a news conference on the city's budget problems at City Hall on Nov. 6. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)Read more

Mayor Nutter stood at the center of a hot and cramped room at the Kingsessing Recreation Center three weeks ago, repeatedly interrupted by hissing, booing and foot-stomping as he pleaded his case.

"This is the last thing I want to be doing," Nutter told the crowd of his decision to close 11 city libraries, seven fire companies, and 68 swimming pools.

Few seemed to hear him.

"Shame on you, Nutter!" one woman shouted. Another called out: "We voted you in - OK, we can vote you out!"

So much for the carefree, feel-good days of last January, when thousands of Philadelphians waited hours in a line that wrapped around City Hall to shake their new mayor's hand.

After taking office amid some of the greatest expectations for a mayor in recent memory, Michael Nutter ends his first year mired in the thankless work of managing Philadelphia's worst financial crisis in decades.

It is a crisis that has slowed and may ultimately threaten his ambitious plans for reform and renewal. And it has served as an untimely stopper to a year that brought what many would consider real successes, including:

The arrival of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who, in a relatively short time, has brought renewed luster to the force and crime-fighting strategies that seem responsible for a sharp drop in violence.

The establishment of a nonemergency 311 call center for residents in need of city services.

A proposal to move at least one of the city's two planned casinos off the Delaware River waterfront.

Avoiding a showdown with the city's labor unions, successfully negotiating one-year contracts without any service disruptions or, notably, any rancor.

All of that, however, has been overshadowed by the stock market crash and the $1 billion gap in the city's five-year budget plan.

Nutter's response - to radically trim the city budget by, among other things, closing pools, libraries and some fire companies - has left him on the defensive.

"No mayor in the city's recent history has confronted such a profound and unanticipated crisis in the first year, and one that is global in scope," said lawyer Carl Singley, an early supporter of one of Nutter's mayoral rivals, State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.). "What the city needs more than ever is steady leadership that promises better times, and Michael seems to be trying to do that."

Phil Goldsmith, city managing director in the John F. Street administration, said: "It's been a curious 12 months for him. . . . People were clearly ready for a change and greeted him with open arms. But, like many things in life, he was thrown a curveball, and ultimately, I think, he'll be judged by how he dealt with that curveball."

Nutter has seemed unbowed by the resulting pressure, self-assuredly offering himself to crowds at a series of town meetings to explain the crisis.

"These are the great challenges of life, and it's one of the reasons to be in public life - to work your heart out to turn things around," he said in a recent interview.

Still, he is the first to acknowledge he has been stung by the vitriol aimed his way.

"I may be mayor, but I'm still human," he said. "I mean, I have feelings like everybody else."

When he took office this time last year, Nutter offered more promise than programs.

Rather than roll out a plan to end blight, as Street did, or offer a spirited fight with city unions, as Ed Rendell did, Nutter presented himself as an agent of change, one who would work to reduce crime and the high school dropout rate.

He also worked to change the perception of City Hall as corrupt and to restore a sense of pride in the office of the mayor.

To that end, he appointed an array of talented outsiders to fill key administrative appointments, including Ramsey, City Managing Director Camille Barnett, and Director of Commerce Andrew Altman.

He also firmly adopted the role of chief ambassador for his administration and the city.

His public schedule on any given day could find him delivering a keynote speech at a New Jersey or Delaware County business luncheon, as well as attending a ribbon-cutting in Southwest Philadelphia.

When there has been a crisis - and there have been a few, including the deaths of four police officers - he is among the first on the scene.

"He is there from beginning to end," said police union president John McNesby. "He's in that room when they tell the family that their mother or father aren't coming home."

And, for the bulk of his first year, he had a dramatic impact on public perception of the city and his place at its head.

"There is no question that people feel that the government is honest and that Mayor Nutter has brought a tide of reform to the process," said Democratic political consultant Larry Ceisler.

Said Councilman Bill Green, one of Nutter's chief critics on Council: "Citizens are happy with their leadership. There seems to be energy and excitement and hopefulness, and that's really important."

Nutter has been less successful in achieving his more concrete goals.

For instance, homicides are down, but by just 15 percent compared with his targeted 25 percent.

"I know we have more to do," Nutter said about crime trends. "But with the new police commissioner, a new mayor, and in an environment where things were to some extent going in the wrong direction, I think we've made a sharp turn."

As for his long-term goal of halving the city high school dropout rate and doubling the number of college degrees, Nutter said it was still attainable.

He said he was proud that his administration had established what he called "one of the best partnerships that has ever taken place between the city and the school district."

Several of his other major initiatives are lagging or have failed to get off the ground. Redevelopment plans for the Delaware River waterfront, for instance, remain murky. City zoning code rules have not been revamped. And though he famously promised to "blow up" the Department of Licenses and Inspections, there's been no wholesale change.

"Some of the positive proactive things he wants to do have been sidelined by the [budget] crisis," Councilman Jim Kenney, Nutter's most loyal Council ally, said.

But others say Nutter was hampered by what they saw as a failure to delegate and prioritize goals.

"It seems like a lot of decisions are still being made on the second floor" by Nutter himself, Green said. "He has brought in professionals, and the administration needs to let them run with the ball."

Nutter dismissed the criticism.

"If you look at all the things I've worked on, this notion that somehow the chief executive is doing these things all by himself or herself is a complete misnomer," he said. "It's a team approach, and everybody has their role to play. Some days my job is to generate the initiative, sometimes it is to push the initiative."

Another criticism of late has been that he failed to fully anticipate the harsh reaction to the cuts he says the fiscal crisis demanded.

While first alerting the public in September that the city faced serious financial challenges, he did not consult constituent groups about how to resolve the crisis.

When he announced in November that he would, among other things, shut libraries and fire companies, the backlash was swift and harsh.

The library advocates have proved particularly dogged, taking the administration to court to successfully block the closures.

In the process, the bloom, for some, was off the rose.

Christine Riddick, 55, of Kingsessing, which was slated to lose a library and a pool, was one of those who chided the mayor at his Kingsessing meeting.

"I'm disappointed in him because he's not a newcomer to politics. He is not someone who came from another city. He is not a stranger," she said later, frustrated with Nutter's failure to give "the community and council people alternatives for some of the cuts."

That reaction has not been lost on Nutter, who promises to learn from his first year as he enters his second.

"Clearly, we needed to do a better job with regard to citizen engagement," he said. "I don't necessarily know what the impact of all that citizen engagement would have been. . . . But that was certainly a learning experience, and we will certainly do better in that regard in the future."