UNTIL ABOUT five years ago, Philadelphia Gas Works was known not simply as "PGW" but "the troubled PGW." Very few references were made to the city-owned utility without that descriptive flourish.
But since then, thanks to the influence of its management team, the company has stabilized, and the scandals and mismanagement that marked its earlier days - unanswered phones, chaotic internal billing systems and ballooning debt - have almost been forgotten.
Among the company's transformations is the most remarkable of all: It's gone from being a liability to an asset. Nowhere is this more evident than in the release this week of a city-commissioned report from Lazard Freres on the possibility of the city's selling the utility. The report's bottom line: There may not only be those willing to buy it, but the city could actually make a profit. That's quite a change from previous years, such as 2007, when then-Mayor John Street urged a sale of PGW just to get rid of the thing, and the huge risk it posed to the city's finances.
The viability of the sale depends on a lot more than profit, of course: A new, private owner would have to contend with a large customer base that is poor, with their bills subsidized by higher rates paid by the rest of its customer base. Also, the utility's aging infrastructure is a huge, expensive challenge. A sale would also be subject to approval by the Public Utility Commission and by City Council.
If the city pursues the sale, the process could take at least two years, during which there will be loud debates about the wisdom of selling, or not selling. That debate should be healthy. What worries us, frankly, is one aspect of the approval process: City Council's involvement.
The potential sale is big and complicated, with long-term implications for the city that go well beyond a single political term. Although Council shouldn't rubber-stamp any decision to sell or not to sell, it would be a shame if the debate got muddied by the political shenanigans we've come to know and hate, particularly between this mayor and this City Council. For example, we can imagine a scenario in which Council members try to derail a sale - not because it's a bad idea, but because it's a good way to stick it to the mayor, or a good opportunity to hold out for self-serving deal-making or political gain.
We urge every Council member to make a pledge to act like a grown-up during this process - to put aside political machinations and think about the long-term, big picture. The decision over PGW's future could be an important turning point for the city, and it demands such thinking.
The truth is, political survival typically isn't compatible with long-term, big-picture thinking. But every elected official in the city should remember that thinking driven solely by self-interest and short-term gain also defines the way that children navigate the world.