By Terry Gillen
Early in the Nutter administration, Joan Markman, the city's first chief integrity officer, met with several city officials to ask them why they had attended a reception without paying. Someone who was there told me that one of the officials sincerely offered this explanation: "My staff works hard and they need perks."
Markman, a former federal prosecutor, turned her steely gaze to this person (a gaze that you would not want to face) and spent the next hour explaining that city employees get paid and get benefits, and so, in fact, they are not entitled to "perks." By the second term of the Nutter administration, that official was no longer serving in that position.
The reason Markman had to spend so much time conducting ethics training with high-level city officials is that Philadelphia has a long history of being "corrupt and contented," as the journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote. In the administration before Nutter's, more than 15 people were convicted of criminal charges related to city government. The previous city treasurer is still sitting in jail for corruption. The FBI had even obtained a warrant to put a bug in the mayor's office.
One of the hallmarks of the Nutter administration has been the high ethical standards at all levels of city government. There are many reasons for this. The city has an independent inspector general, who has real power and who has removed nearly 200 city employees who were corrupt. The chief integrity office, a new position located in the Mayor's Office, has provided ethics oversight of all employees. A ban on gifts to members of the executive branch (a ban later fought by some members of City Council) has made clear that "perks" are not part of the compensation package. New campaign-donation limits ensure that no single donor can obtain too much power. And the vacant-land system, on which Markman spent countless hours, now has a transparent website that should make it harder to do favors for developers once a land bank is operational.
We are less than five months from electing a new mayor and Council, and yet no Council members or good-government groups have put forth a platform of ethics initiatives that would prevent city government from backsliding into corruption. Council passed a law to make the Office of Sustainability permanent, but not the chief integrity officer. Last year, both Council and the Committee of Seventy unsuccessfully pushed a charter initiative that would have allowed Council members to run for mayor while retaining their current jobs, yet a bill to make the inspector general permanent under the charter has been lagging in committee for a year.
The silence on these issues has been deafening. Indeed, it has become chic in some circles to suggest that the city would be better off if Nutter were not quite so, well, ethical - an argument that could gain traction only in a city like Philadelphia. No one in New York, for example, would suggest that Mayor Bill de Blasio would have had a more effective start had he allowed a little bit of graft in his first year. But in Philadelphia, serious people make these arguments, and serous media outlets print them.
In fact, just the opposite is true. The previous city administration governed during a real estate boom, yet there was minimal construction during that time. Attempts to get projects built on the Delaware River waterfront became bogged down in pay-to-play allegations. Serious developers and investors will build and invest only when they don't have to pay off some city official.
One reason that there is so much construction in Philadelphia today - and we are still coming out of a real estate slump - is that the rules are clear, the process is transparent, and the ethical standards are high. For example, the old Penn's Landing Corp. was dissolved and new standards were established in Nutter's first year. Now the Delaware River waterfront is bustling with projects like the Race Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor. Architects and developers from around the world now want to work in Philadelphia because they know that they have a fair shot at making money without a shakedown.
We can't predict who will occupy the mayor's office or Council chambers next year, but we can demand that the city's next elected leaders keep the Nutter administration's ethics reforms in place. There is hope that Philadelphia has moved away from its status as "corrupt and contented," but we need to do more than hope. We need people to speak out and take action.