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Philadelphia fitness czar's journey back to city payroll

Gwen Foster's job was taken off the city books in 2003. Its return drew little notice.

Gwen Foster leads the city's Office of Health and Fitness.
Gwen Foster leads the city's Office of Health and Fitness.Read more

In 2003, in a cost-cutting move, Mayor Street announced that the city would no longer pay to keep his childhood friend Gwen Foster on the public payroll as Philadelphia's fitness czar. Instead, her salary would be picked up by a corporate donor.

But it turns out she's been back on the public payroll for nearly two years.

Foster, a deputy managing director who is paid $86,317 annually, said yesterday: "I never left."

In a sense, she's right. After cutting her position, the mayor struck a deal with GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C. to fund Foster's job through a corporate sponsorship, with the result being that the pharmaceutical giant wrote a check to the city, which in turn wrote a check to Foster.

But that arrangement ended about two years ago, Foster said, and she made a quiet return to the taxpayer-funded payroll.

That detail came to light as Foster, and the Office of Health and Fitness that she oversees, held a news conference yesterday to announce the final health initiative of Street's term.

Called a "holiday health journey," the initiative invites residents to participate in fitness activities around the city.

The activities, which began yesterday and will last through the 12 days of Christmas, include a salsa class, a family skate night, line dancing, African dance, and more.

"It's a terrible, terrible thing to be out of shape and unfit," Street said at the news conference. He also noted that Monday would mark 40 years since he began his own fitness program, one in which he lost 80 pounds.

Street launched his Health and Fitness Office upon becoming mayor, partly in response to a 1999 Men's Fitness survey that put Philadelphia at the top of its Fat City list.

Yesterday, Street and Foster celebrated the office's achievements, noting that another magazine, Cooking Light, this year singled out Philadelphia as one of the nation's fittest cities.

Foster said the city's fitness program had received global recognition for helping people lower their blood pressure and cholesterol as well as shed pounds. Last month, she was a CNN panelist at a "Fit Nation Summit" that also featured former President Bill Clinton.

"I just wish Philadelphians knew," she added, saying the program was underappreciated locally.

Mayor-elect Michael Nutter said yesterday he was uncertain about his plans for the office. "I think it's important that the city play a vigorous role in health-related activities," he said, "but I have not made a determination as to the future of that particular office."