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Mayor Jim Kenney has been mostly absent from Philly’s public response to the Delaware River chemical spill

Mayor Jim Kenney has been in Philadelphia while a chemical spill has been threatening the city's drinking water, but has not attended his administration's news conferences.

Mayor Jim Kenney is seen through a television camera as he speaks during his press conference announcing his administration’s priorities for 2023 at City Hall in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.
Mayor Jim Kenney is seen through a television camera as he speaks during his press conference announcing his administration’s priorities for 2023 at City Hall in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023.Read moreHeather Khalifa / Staff Photographer

As news broke over the weekend that a chemical spill threatened to contaminate the Delaware River, residents scrambled for bottled water and for answers from city leaders.

But Mayor Jim Kenney was nowhere to be found for almost three days after dangerous chemicals flowed into Otter Creek just upstream of the city.

The city’s messaging was at times ambiguous, public relations experts said, and one thing that could have helped residents better understand the situation is a familiar face speaking directly about the issue.

“A leader’s absence speaks volumes and can sometime ratchet up concerns,” said Anne Buchanan, a crisis management consultant who has worked with water companies in the past. “It’s a shame that we don’t have a leader who is showing his face and offering words of encouragement at a time when people have serious concerns.”

Kenney made his first public appearance Monday evening in a virtual news conference, saying he waited to communicate directly with the public until he had solid information to share based on water testing. He did not participate in a Sunday briefing by officials from his administration hours after an alert from the city led to a run on bottled water in stores across Philadelphia.

“I was in Philadelphia the entire weekend getting briefed on this and getting in contact with all these people on a regular basis all day Saturday, Saturday night, Sunday, Sunday night, today, and now we’re doing this today because we have substantive information to give you,” he said.

Kenney, who leaves office in January, has been criticized for what his detractors describe as a lack of leadership during his second term, which has been defined by the coronavirus pandemic and the gun violence crisis. The mayor exacerbated that impression when he said in July that he will “be happy when I’m not here — when I’m not mayor,” after two police officers were wounded by distant celebratory gunfire during the city’s July Fourth celebration.

Kenney has been in the city throughout the water contamination ordeal, administration spokesperson Sarah Peterson said. But instead of participating in news conferences about the chemical spill, the mayor left it to “subject matter experts from the two lead agencies who are best equipped to discuss the details of the situation as it evolved,” she said.

“Mayor Kenney has been in regular communication with the agencies involved throughout the weekend” and “has been tweeting about the situation to amplify the key updates by the lead agencies involved,” Peterson said in a statement.

Kenney on Sunday tweeted reassurances that the city’s water supply remained safe to drink and directing followers to the city website.

“We know residents are concerned, and we continue to respond to this situation as updated information comes in,” he posted. “I want to assure everyone: no contaminants have been found in our tap water system. At this time, Philly’s tap water remains safe to drink.”

» READ MORE: Mayor Jim Kenney’s hands-off style landed him big wins in a calm first term. Does it still work during crisis?

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kenney participated in the city’s frequent news briefings, but often ceded the floor to department heads and other administration officials. His decision to not participate in any of the initial news conferences this weekend represents one more step into the background for Kenney.

Mayoral candidate slams Kenney’s response

The crowded field of candidates seeking to replace him in this year’s election pounced on his handling of the ordeal.

“At then end of the day, Philadelphians, when they have a crisis, they expect to see the mayor there,” said former City Councilmember Derek Green, one of the 11 candidates vying for the mayor’s office. “The bottom line is when you put your hand top and say, ‘I’m taking the oath of office to be mayor,’ people look to you for leadership in crisis situations.”

Several other candidates — former Councilmembers Allan Domb and Helen Gym, former Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, and grocer Jeff Brown — also criticized Kenney’s approach.

Kenney on Monday bristled at the pile-on from the candidates hoping to succeed him.

“I really don’t have to concern myself with their opinions,” he said at the news conference. “I’m not going to react to people running for office and what they say.”

» READ MORE: Philly mayoral candidates say the city botched its response to the chemical spill

The city’s response has gotten some things right, said Stephanie Wein, clean water advocate for the environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment. She credited the Water Department with being proactive in the wake of the spill by testing water and informing the public of the risk level from the contaminants.

“They’re getting ahead of it, the precautionary principle is being applied when we don’t know how much of a threat this is posing,” Wein said. “It feels like the Water Department and its engineers are on top of this and are being pretty transparent.”

Parallels to COVID-19

Buchanan, founder and CEO of Buchanan Public Relations, noted that the circumstances surrounding the contamination issue — a potential threat to city residents with an evolving information ecosystem — mirrors in some ways what the city went through in the early days of COVID-19.

“This has all the hallmarks of a crisis situation in the sense that new information comes in and may change the guidance that authorities need to share with residents,” she said.

That can help explain why some of the city’s messaging was ambiguous and confusing to residents. On Sunday, for instance, the city said residents “may choose to drink bottled water” after 2 p.m., leading to confusion over whether tap water was safe to drink at that time. (The administration has since clarified that tap water has been safe throughout the ordeal and that the Sunday guidance was made “out of an abundance of caution.”)

That parallels instances during the pandemic when the city attempted to encourage masking without requiring it, Buchanan said.

“You’re trying to get someone to take inaction but you don’t want to alarm them unduly, and it can be a very tiny needle you’re trying to thread,” Buchanan said.

When organizations need to convey complex messages, it becomes even more useful to do so with a trusted voice such as a well-known elected official, she said.

“At a time of crisis, you want the leader to be there to offer reassurance to the stakeholders, to the community,” she said. “People will be more willing to understand and appreciate the challenges of a situation like this.”

Staff writers Jason Laughlin and Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.