On his first full day as mayor, Michael Nutter flung open City Hall's doors to thousands of Philadelphians who waited hours to shake the hand of someone they believed could become one of the city's finest mayors. By many measures, Nutter did not disappoint. After eight years of his leadership, the city has its lowest homicide rate since 1967, its highest credit rating ever from Standard & Poor's, and the rewards of a well-run government.
It was frustrating to see Nutter too often choose taxation to stave off the impact of the 2008 recession, but his strategy kept the city on its feet and allowed it to hit its stride, as Center City's energy and prosperity began spilling into nearby neighborhoods.
Nutter took advantage of a national trend by enticing millennial hipsters and older empty nesters seeking an urban lifestyle to move to Philadelphia. He created an Office of Sustainability, instituted a Philly 311 phone line to request nonemergency services, built bike lanes, pop-up parks, and summer beer gardens. Smart planning under him is turning the Delaware and Schuylkill riverfronts into expanded recreation areas for the entire region.
Philadelphia's stature, not just nationally but worldwide, has grown with Nutter's support for signature events, including rap mogul Jay Z's Made in America music festival, the World Meeting of Families visit by Pope Francis, Philadelphia's citation as this country's first World Heritage City, and its hosting next year's Democratic National Convention.
Nutter's greatest achievement may be improving ethics at City Hall, freeing his appointees to serve the public, rather than campaign contributors and other special interests. He created a chief integrity officer position and boosted the budget and scope of the Inspector General's Office. Nutter also deserves kudos for replacing the city's antiquated property tax system with his Actual Value Initiative, which assesses all city properties according to their real market values.
Generally, government has been more responsive under Nutter. Library and recreation services have improved, and under the leadership of one of the nation's best police commissioners, crime is down. Gun violence hasn't disappeared from the city, financially strained schools still struggle to educate, and deep poverty continues its stranglehold on too many communities. But those problems exist in other cities too, so Nutter isn't alone in not solving them.
His tenure, though, did have one glaring flaw specific to him: He seemed incapable of coaxing a majority on City Council into following his lead on important issues. That was most glaringly evident with the failed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works, which until recent years has been a budget-biting albatross around the city's neck.
It was also disappointing that union contracts weren't negotiated until Nutter's second term, and that a hybrid defined-contribution retirement plan is only voluntary and underutilized. The slow pace of promised reforms within the Department of Licenses and Inspections after a fatal 2013 building collapse is also disturbing.
Those negatives, however, are outweighed by the positives that Mayor Nutter achieved. Philadelphia may some day be considered one of the world's great cities. And when it is, he will be among those to thank.