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Budget isn't only gap vexing Nutter

Communication, too, was shaky when he made cuts. The fallout, like the crisis, shifted the tone of his year.

Mayor Nutter learned a lesson, his top aide said.
Mayor Nutter learned a lesson, his top aide said.Read more

It was not the sort of week Mayor Nutter has typically endured during his first 11 months in office.

There was the grilling of his administration Wednesday by City Council members, angry about what they saw as a lack of cooperation and openness. There was the scrum of reporters who hounded the mayor Thursday about the lack of answers Council and others were getting to their questions. And there was a private meeting the same day with African American civic and religious leaders unhappy with his perceived lack of outreach.

The honeymoon, it seems, is over, the victim of a $1 billion budget hole that has led Nutter to shut libraries and swimming pools and remove fire companies.

Until now, his tenure had remained relatively free of controversy. But Philadelphia's escalating budget crisis has presented some rare defensive moments for the mayor, and left some wondering whether he made political missteps in estimating how the news would be received.

"When you've had a very long honeymoon, you can sometimes get fooled and believe you are going to have that good will forever. But good will is very fragile in a crisis," said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group.

Initially, Nutter seemed to handle this rocky stretch in his typically sure-footed manner. His well-orchestrated budget presentation was long on details and earnest explanations about the city's financial crisis.

Several Council members stood at his side as he explained to reporters the gravity of the decaying financial environment and the toll on Philadelphia.

But as the impact sank in and they heard from angry constituents - Fishtown is slated to lose a library, an engine company, and a pool - tempers rose and questions intensified.

The administration, despite the growing outcry, held back detailed explanations about the criteria used to decide which libraries to close and fire companies to move.

It wasn't until 11 days after Nutter's Nov. 6 television address announcing the grim news that his aides shared specific data with Council.

To some, it was too late.

Five-term Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell said she knew when her input was wanted and when it was not.

"The briefing was to inform us of the cuts, not to engage us in any dialogue," she said. "I don't mind doing some of their work - if they asked me."

Freshman Councilman Bill Green said the administration had still not provided data he requested.

"This attitude evidences disrespect for a coequal branch of government, and it effectively undermines a key vehicle of citizen input into the budget process," he said.

As a result, Nutter may have lost some political capital - with Council and others.

"His head and his heart were right, but when he lowered the boom on people, it drew a lot of concern," State Rep. Jewell Williams (D., Phila.) said. To some extent, he and other lawmakers said, they were caught off guard by the depth of the cuts Nutter announced.

Williams said he would have "eased the information out," but added: "He's a new mayor. We have to give him a little room."

Local NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire said he had told Nutter at last week's meeting with about 60 citywide African American leaders that he faulted him for announcing such grim news when its gravity was least likely to set in - one week after the Phillies' World Series win and two days after Barack Obama's election.

"It was horrible timing," Mondesire said.

At that meeting, Nutter also heard several complaints about his failure to reach out earlier on, said A. Bruce Crawley, founder of the African American Chamber of Commerce.

"I think he learned something about being able to trust people in neighborhoods and communities when these kind of decisions are on the table," Crawley said.

Clay Armbrister, Nutter's chief of staff, acknowledged Friday that the administration could have done a better job reaching out. "It's certainly a lesson learned," he said.

"I'm sure a lot of people would have liked to have heard more information in advance," he added, "but we were in this period of constant change" as the budget hole doubled in a matter of weeks.

In some ways, the budget-cutting process reflected Nutter's close-to-the-vest style. Most of the decisions were hashed out in 30 consecutive days of meetings inside a 14th-floor conference room in the Municipal Services Building. Attended primarily by Armbrister, Finance Director Rob Dubow, Budget Director Stephen Agostini, and a handful of others, the discussions were not widely shared.

Nutter has emphasized his frequent contact with Council members and said the administration had shared with them "every possible piece of information" used to cut the budget.

He pointed out that Council's early input had altered a recommendation to close all city pools. Now, 13 will open.

Interestingly, Nutter - who was a councilman for 15 years - also took note that much of the criticism had come from Council members who had worked with him the least: freshmen Green, Curtis Jones Jr. and Maria Quiñones Sánchez.

"Certainly, if you talk to the more veteran members," he said, they know "I am available 24 hours, seven days a week. . . . If I have information, I share it."

Still, the mayor sympathized and said he could have done better. With the need to close a $108 million annual deficit in a short time, he said, "a rapid series of decisions" were made, some "without as much collaboration" as there could have been.

Until now, said Randall Miller, a history professor at St. Joseph's University, "most people trusted that Nutter had the best interest of the city at heart."

In the last few weeks, though, "some of that confidence was betrayed when people saw the consequence of what was decided and realized it was going to effect them directly," he said. "They got hit with a brickbat."