In a city where the Democratic Party overwhelms its Republican counterpart when it comes to registered voters, primary elections can be tantamount to a coronation. By all current indicators that is likely to be the case with the May 16 primary to determine the Democratic nominee for one of the city's most important elective offices - controller.
Mike Tomlinson, a certified public accountant who worked for insurance companies and banks, has no opposition for the Republican nomination. But on the Democratic side, incumbent Alan Butkovitz is in what is expected to be a tight race against former city budget director Rebecca Rhynhart.
Butkovitz spent 14 years representing the Northeast in the General Assembly before being elected controller in 2005. The Inquirer didn't endorse him that year because he was one of the state legislators who accepted a pay raise without any public debate. But Butkovitz later gave the money back, and has done a creditable job as controller.
Perhaps Butkovitz's most important audit was a 2011 review of the Sheriff's Office that revealed massive misspending, rank incompetence, and blatant nepotism. If the report was missing anything, it was timeliness. By the time it was issued Sheriff John Green had left office. Three years later, federal authorities charged Green with fraud.
The timing also raised some antennae with Butkovitz's recent audit of the Mayor's Fund, which revealed a lack of receipts for thousands of dollars of expenditures when former Mayor Michael Nutter was in office. Butkovitz said he lacked the authority to audit the nonprofit fund until he was given the go-ahead by Mayor Kenney.
That's a valid reason for the audit's delay. And Butkovitz has done other audits that were more timely. But Philadelphia could use a more aggressive approach by a controller who will effectively use the bully pulpit that comes with that office to generate public support for transparency if an elected official resists an audit.
That controller could be Rhynhart. Her decision to leave the Kenney administration as its chief administrative officer, a cabinet position created for her, showed she wants to take on a more visible role that would help Philadelphia become a more fiscally grounded city.
Rhynhart's experience with the Bear Stearns investment firm provides a financial background, rather than a political pedigree. As budget director from 2010-2016, she was responsible for the city's $8.1 billion operating budget and $9 billion, 6-year capital program. Rhynhart says she didn't always agree with Nutter on spending decisions. As the city's independent controller, she won't have to silence her dissent.