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DN Editorial: One-man ship of state

Clarke's secretive approach undermines democratic values.

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke on last day of council before holiday break.
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke on last day of council before holiday break.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

WHILE WE wish it could be more like a sleek yacht, in its sheer size and speed, government, especially city government, more resembles a rusty old barge: heavy and utilitarian, and not always able to move forward without being pulled by a tugboat.

But City Council President Darrell Clarke is too often treating it as a single-person kayak.

Clarke's actions during the last few months underscore his preference for keeping the details of his endeavors close to his chest. That may suit his personality, but we'd feel better if he remembered that his is a public job - and the people's business, with which Council is charged, is best handled when the public is fully informed, if not consulted.

There are many examples in Clarke's reign, but the most recent one is the scuttling of the PGW deal. After UIL Holdings submitted its bid for PGW to the city, Clarke remained quiet while the Council's consultant, Concentric, analyzed the deal for its soundness. Concentric found no issue with the bid itself, but highlighted other directions in which the sale could go.

Bottom line seemed to be that private ownership was not something that interested Clarke, despite his past record for supporting the sale of municipal assets. He was clearly more enchanted with the notion of PGW becoming owned by a public-private partnership.

According to a recent Inquirer report, Clarke has consistently touted a few examples of where public-private partnerships have been attempted as potential models. The problem is, two of the three he touted have been dissolved, leaving the impression Clarke latched on to an idea without doing full diligence on the soundness of the idea - or that he was operating with stale information.

To be fair, things change all the time. But that's why there is value in having public hearings; ideas can be given full hearings, both good and bad, before deciding the fate of huge deals like the PGW sale that have such high stakes. The single hearing that Council held came after it announced it didn't support the UIL bid, and frankly, that hearing was far from definitive as to the best course for the municipal gas company. In fact, much of the testimony suggested private ownership would be the best course.

Then there is Clarke's L&I bill. A bill to streamline the functions of the Department of Licenses and Inspections under a new department was rushed through committee, despite pleas from those in the building and development community to slow the process down. Mayor Nutter has his own effort underway to streamline the department, although his is moving at a snail's pace. Clarke's bill would require a charter change, and he wants it on the May ballot.

We admire anyone who can turn a barge into a kayak, but we'd be more consoled if Clarke saw government not as a solo act, but as the unifier of many ideas and many people. That's the essence of City Council, after all, which gains its power collectively, since individual members garner a fraction of the votes that a larger office like mayor gets. (Consider: Clarke won office with 13,000 votes, vs. Nutter's 136,000 votes. Those numbers lend a slightly different perspective on the battles between the two.)

The future of the city should be in the hands of many, not just a few. We hope the new year brings a new commitment to full airings - and full hearings - of ideas.