Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

PGW deal latest casualty in Philly's Nutter-and-Clarke soap opera

One of the oddest and most frustrating episodes of Philadelphia's long-running governmental soap opera faded to a close Thursday. It did so absent any heroes, with a baffling plot, and its two stars shouting over one another's lines even as the curtain fell.

One of the oddest and most frustrating episodes of Philadelphia's long-running governmental soap opera faded to a close Thursday.

It did so absent any heroes, with a baffling plot, and its two stars shouting over one another's lines even as the curtain fell.

Regardless of who ultimately is deemed at fault, the sorry debacle of the aborted sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works seems a drama fully deserving its scathing reviews and one that has done nothing to enhance the stature either of its lead actors - Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke - or the city.

Nutter, who had pursued the sale for two years, leaves the stage with his legacy prize lost, many viewers felt, as much because of his own missteps as any opposition presented by Clarke.

"The sales job the administration did was woeful," said Sam Katz, a former mayoral candidate and a keen observer of the local political scene. "I have found that few proposals, no matter how good, are ever bought. Everything has to be sold. This had to be sold. Where were the efforts to go Council district to Council district, community meeting to community meeting, to sell this?"

Clarke's notices were no better last week when critics mulled Council's refusal even to allow hearings on the potential sale agreement or to offer a significant counterplan.

"I just can't make sense of this," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University history professor who is an expert on local politics. "On the face of it, it just seems unbelievably stupid. Clarke is going to have a hard time explaining to any reasonable person how Council let this deal collapse without even a hearing or some concrete alternative if it did not work out."

And Philadelphia?

Again, we hear from Katz.

"My overriding feeling is a sense of regression, that government in Philadelphia has clearly stamped on its forehead: 'We can't get big things done.' "

While that latter point certainly will have its challengers, there seemed little disagreement among anyone involved in the PGW escapade that it wound up a bruising, undignified affair with no real winners.

"What I am concerned about is, our government is going to appear to be dysfunctional and unpredictable," said Larry Ceisler, a media consultant who worked on behalf of the sale for Nutter. "That becomes a challenge when you are trying to attract business and capital to your city."

In this instance, the city, through Council, turned its back on an infusion of $1.86 billion in capital. That was the offering price for the purchase of PGW by UIL, a Connecticut utility company.

That the price was highest bid offered for the gas works was among the few things both sides of this conflict can agree upon.

Nutter had advanced the sale as the best outcome for city, one that would free up $400 million plus to help stabilize the city's anemic pension funds for its 65,000 municipal employees and retirees. Clarke challenged both assumptions while complaining bitterly that Council was not given enough input into the sale decision.

In October, Clarke, standing with six other Council members, announced he had concluded there was so little support among his colleagues for the proposal that there was no need even to submit it for a public debate. For the first time in memory, Council killed a key mayoral initiative without the courtesy of a review and vote.

Until Thursday, there had been a slender hope that a lobbying effort by business and labor leaders could revive the deal in time for it to be introduced - perhaps with enough revising and revamping to satisfy Clarke - and voted on by Council before year's end. When the effort failed, UIL announced late Thursday that it was moving on.

Nutter blamed Council - and by extension Clarke - for what he called a "massive failure in leadership."

But more than a few observers, while sympathetic to Nutter's goals, said the mayor's own behavior contributed to his troubles.

Nutter has had a notoriously poor relationship with Council almost since the day he took office seven years ago. Council members view him as a holier-than-thou executive who is, at best, dismissive of their role and their behavior. Where other mayors built bridges to their corresponding Council presidents (Ed Rendell's olive branches to John F. Street come to mind) or at least cultivated supportive members, Nutter has had few if any reliable allies in the chamber where he once served.

"This just reconfirmed what we have seen over the course of his administration," historian Miller said. "He has never had a good relationship with Council. He always has been a Lone Ranger-type, and he was such a policy wonk he forgot the personality-cultivation side politics. He never bothered with that much."

Nutter has contended that he has reached out repeatedly to Clarke and Council during the past two years as he tried to advance the PGW sale. Clarke and others on Council have been dismissive of his efforts, labeling them too little and too late.

That disconnect is emblematic of the difficult relationship that has long existed between Nutter and Clarke. There is an antagonism between the two men that reaches back to the time of Nutter's predecessor, former Mayor Street - who was both Clarke's mentor and Nutter's foil.

Since becoming Council president, Clarke seems to have spent as much effort thwarting Nutter's agenda as advancing his own.

"It is all about personal animosity," said a political consultant who has watched both men closely and spoke on condition of anonymity. "These are two guys who don't like or trust each other."

Asked about his relationship with Nutter last week, Clarke described the mayor as his "friend" - a word none who know the men would likely use.

Told of Clarke's description, the mayor replied: "I appreciate the Council president's friendship and I always look forward to working with him for the betterment of our city."

Clarke has said he feared for the future of PGW's 1,630 employees (in skilled and "family-sustaining" jobs, he wrote Friday in an op-ed) and of the gas works' energy-saving programs for elderly and low-income ratepayers had the deal gone through.

Still, his actions concerning PGW have seemed, at times, to be as disingenuous as his use of the word "friend" in describing Nutter.

While he allowed the two-year process to play out, even spending $522,000 on a consultant's report on the deal for Council, Clarke said last week he was dead set against a PGW sale from the very start, which suggests there was nothing Nutter could have done to change the outcome.

Council members were not given the consultant's report - which is seen as largely supportive of the sale agreement - until the day before the decision to pass on the proposal announced.

"You can not read that report without coming away with the sense that the advisors were advising them to do the deal," said Katz, whose background is in municipal finance and who recently served as chairman of the state board that oversees city finances.

Clarke's stand has earned him stinging editorial rebukes from the city's major newspapers at a time when he has talked of running to succeed Nutter.

The political consultant who knows both men predicted the PGW drama would leave Clarke "very damaged" for such a run - at least among donors with deep pockets: "Among labor and business people who would fund his campaign, it hurt a lot. They don't understand why he acted this way."

Katz, who has not ruled out another mayoral run of his own, held a similar view.

He said of Clarke, "I don't know how he comes through this looking like someone poised to run the city."