Darrell Clarke's City Council handled its most important policy decision to date with all the finesse and goodwill of a gas explosion.
Futility is the primary impression left by Council's surreptitious and senseless rejection of a $1.86 billion offer for the Philadelphia Gas Works. But if there is a bright side, it's that the Council chief's mayoral prospects look dimmer than ever.
If Clarke runs for mayor now, he will have effectively kicked off his campaign with a funeral. Without so much as a public hearing, he and his cohorts killed an unprecedented and perhaps unrepeatable opportunity to unload the risks and debt of an antiquated utility at a price high enough to substantially reduce the city's unsustainable pension liability.
Clarke's stated reasons for doing so are hopelessly self-refuting. He picked apart the details of the offer by Connecticut-based UIL Holdings, which the Nutter administration gleaned from more than 30 bidders - questioning, for example, its promises to retain most of the workforce for three years and speed replacement of ancient gas mains - even as he said he could not support any sale to a private corporation. And while he avidly supported an incremental increase in pension funding through sales-tax revenue, he dismissed the much greater potential pension impact of UIL's offer, which was withdrawn last week after more than a year and a half of inaction by Council.
Despite his enumerated misgivings and the company's explicit offers to address them, Clarke declined to hold hearings during which such issues could be discussed and debated. He later insisted that the deal had a public airing during Council's hearings on the city's "energy future" - even though the press release announcing those hearings quoted him as declaring the UIL deal dead.
Such contradictions leave one searching for Clarke's real reasons. Perhaps they have more to do with one of his most frequent and bitter complaints: that Mayor Nutter fails to show him and Council due deference. That's not hard to believe given the administration's tendency toward know-it-all high-handedness. But there is evidence that Nutter tried to include Council in the bidding process, and the public hearings Clarke skipped would have provided the ultimate forum for Council input. Moreover, according to Clarke's own account, no amount of collaboration could have convinced him that PGW should be sold to a private buyer.
In any case, being a public official, Clarke should have felt an obligation to take a good deal for the city - or at the very least consider one - regardless of whether he finds the mayor's personality annoying.
Those puzzling over Clarke's motives also have noticed that he seems to have another suitor in mind. He has said he prefers a "public-private partnership" to a sale, and in a meeting with the Editorial Board last week, he alluded to an arrangement that he could not yet discuss.