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DN Editorial: No power to the people

Council's deceitful axing of the PGW sale is a sad day for the city & democracy

The failed sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works is the latest episode in the long-running saga of Nutter vs. Clarke.
The failed sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works is the latest episode in the long-running saga of Nutter vs. Clarke.Read moreFile Photograph

IN PHILADELPHIA, our past is always at war with the future, proven by the recent failure of the deal to sell the city-owned Philadelphia Gas Works for $1.86 billion.

The deal with the New Haven, Conn., utility UIL Holdings would have been a win-win-win for the city. Now it simply offers proof, as if more were needed, that the old world of petty politics still rules in this town.

There were many merits to the deal negotiated by the Nutter Administration, but the merits were never debated or even considered by City Council. No one would even introduce a bill dealing with the sale, and it finally died last week when UIL withdrew its bid.

Council's record in handling this deal has been consistent: one of duplicity and deceit.

All summer long, it delayed consideration of the sale while officially doing "due diligence" by hiring independent experts (with $522,000 in taxpayer money) to do a neutral analysis of the sale. The experts came back with a report that said, in so many words, that it was a good deal.

Hiring that expert was simply a delaying tactic to assure that the study would not be done until after the original deadline for the sale. The evidence is that most Council members never read the report.

When UIL said that it would extend the deadline, Council at last had to reveal its true hand: President Darrell Clarke said that Council members had "no appetite" for selling PGW.

Members groused about Nutter not "consulting" with Council before advancing on the sale, portraying themselves as the city's board of directors and the mayor as their CEO, whose job was to implement their policy.

That is a fundamentally wrong - not to mention boneheaded - view of the chief executive's role, not only in Philadelphia but in state and federal government as well.

President Obama doesn't have to "consult" with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to get their pre-approval of his ideas. He proposes, Congress disposes. It can hold hearings, it can amend the administration's plans, it then votes "yea" or "nay." That's called the separation of powers. You can read all about it in the Constitution.

In Philadelphia, our Council would not even consider the deal. It brushed it aside without a hearing on the merits, without any discussion of amending it, though UIL said that it was willing to change aspects of the plan to deal with Council's concerns.

Without any public discussion, we will never know for sure about Council's real reasons for ditching the deal. Was it simply driven by Council's almost pathological hostility toward Nutter? Was it Council's desire to hold onto PGW as a political pie so it can influence decisions on contracts and hiring now and in the future?

We'll never know for sure. Clarke never reveals his true motives and rarely speaks candidly. When the deal failed, he released a statement that, of course, slammed Nutter for having the audacity to advance the idea of the sale.

"Once again," Clarke said, "the Nutter administration has learned that the birthplace of American freedom has little tolerance for sweeping policy decisions made unilaterally with no input from the public."

In other words, Clarke was accusing Nutter of doing exactly what Council did - making a unilateral decision to kill the PGW deal with no input from the public.

We don't know whether to laugh or to cry.