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Michael Nutter: Mayor of the world?

Nutter’s frequent travels to other cities and countries have raised questions back at home.

Since taking office in 2008, Mayor Nutter's travels outside Pennsylvania have cost Philly taxpayers $243,000, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request. (Daily News photo illustration)
Since taking office in 2008, Mayor Nutter's travels outside Pennsylvania have cost Philly taxpayers $243,000, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request. (Daily News photo illustration)Read more

FLORENCE, BEIJING, Tianjin, London, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Birmingham, Grand Rapids, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C.

No, that's not the list of stops on Miley Cyrus' Twerk Tour 2013. It's a list of places the mayor of Philadelphia has traveled to - in the past year.

Since taking office in 2008, Mayor Nutter's travels outside Pennsylvania have cost Philly taxpayers $243,000, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request.

Included in that total are expenses for Nutter's entourage, which usually includes a couple of top administration officials, an assistant and a handful of Philadelphia police officers for security.

Nutter, who returns today from a trade mission to the United Kingdom and Israel, has said his travels attract business and boost the city's stature. Detractors say the trips are more about the mayor's stature and question their benefits to the city.

That debate aside, the frequency of his travels and the depth of the problems facing Philadelphia have led his critics to ask a different question: Is Nutter neglecting the home front?

City Controller Alan Butkovitz said many of the biggest issues facing Nutter - his acrimonious relationship with City Council; the school district's desperate need for new funding; the fact that three of the city's four unions have been working without contracts since 2009 - can be solved only by investing time in relationships and negotiations.

"A lot of the paralysis and the problems we have right now are not insurmountable. A lot of it is personality problems," he said. "You make it your business that you're going to bring people around and turn people into allies. And if you work at it 24 hours, and if you're here, you will make progress. . . . There's an awful lot of people to be massaged in Philadelphia."

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said the mayor doesn't let his traveling get in the way of running the city.

"Whether Mayor Nutter is sitting at his desk or is 1,000 miles away, he is in contact with whom he needs to be. That is the power of modern technology," McDonald wrote in an email. "Under his guidance, the executive branch of city government is working all day every day to make a safer, healthier, greener and more prosperous city."

Mayor of mayors

Much of Nutter's travel this past year - including the trips to Vegas, Italy and Washington - were for events of the United States Conference of Mayors, which he served as president until this summer.

Nutter and two staffers in March went on a five-day excursion to Florence, Italy, one of Philadelphia's sister cities, to attend the Creative Metro Economies conference.

The USCM picked up the tab for that trip and others, although Philly pays $45,569 per year to be a member of the group, according to the USCM website.

Traveling to Philadelphia's sister cities has become a priority for Nutter.

Almost a year ago, the mayor flew to Beijing for a sustainability conference and took a detour to nearby Tianjin, a Philly sister city. Asked upon his return what the city gains from these trips, Nutter said they help attract business - especially in a culture like China's that emphasizes face-to-face interaction with leaders.

"We are an international city, and we should start acting like it," he said. "We have a number of . . . international firms that operate here in Philadelphia that employ Philadelphians. . . . My job is to try to help bring more jobs and economic opportunity to the city of Philadelphia."

Tel Aviv, from where Nutter is returning today, is another sister city. Select Greater Philadelphia, an arm of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will pick up the tab for much of the 10-day trade mission to London and Israel, as it did for the Beijing trip.

"The mayor is an excellent spokesman for the city and the region, and when you have a delegation that's led by a public official like the mayor, you attract more people to participate," Select Greater Philadelphia president Thomas Morr said.

Joining Nutter in the U.K. were: City Representative Desiree Peterkin-Bell; Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger; Luke Butler, Greenberger's chief of staff; Shinjoo Cho, of the Commerce Department; Danielle Cohn, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau; and the mayor's photographer, Kait Privitera.

In September 2012, Nutter attended the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and gave a speech attacking Mitt Romney's education record. He was later criticized by some for soapboxing about education on the national stage while the school system in Philly was crumbling.

His campaign committee covered his expenses in Charlotte, and city taxpayers paid for two staffers to join him. The mayor used a similar arrangement to go to the 2008 convention in Denver.

Itinerant opinions

Former Mayor John Street said he usually turned down the opportunity to go on trade missions.

"I found most of the proposed trips of this kind to be little more then fancy junkets for the mayor and staff," Street wrote in an email. "I just never saw the value in it even if there were third parties sharing the costs."

Councilman Jim Kenney, a frequent critic of the Nutter administration, said he believes the mayor's international travel is intended to build Nutter's reputation.

"For him, it's all about the appearance of getting things done and not really getting things done," Kenney said.

Not everyone on Council thinks Nutter's travel is a waste. Councilwoman Marian Tasco said Nutter's time as USCM president and the itinerary that comes with the job helped Philly.

"You gain some things when you travel and you network, and a lot of that stuff happens at the coffee table or breakfast table," she said. "You learn about other programs in other cities that you can bring back to your city."

McDonald, Nutter's spokesman, said the mayor's presence abroad is sometimes necessary to bring international investment to Philly.

"Philadelphia is a growing international city with an economy that has more and more links to global markets. Mayor Nutter works every day on growing the city's economy, strengthening the skills of our workforce and promoting this City with businesses in the U.S. and abroad," McDonald wrote in an email. "This work often involves travel because personal contact can be a vital element in establishing relationships."