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Nutter's Second Term: How to Succeed by Really Trying

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

With the primary over,  Mayor Nutter must now decide what he wants to do in his second term. Second terms are when incumbents begin to think about their legacy - and it often causes an uncontrollable urge to build something, preferably something big.  There's a name for this impulse: The Edifice Complex.

Second terms are also when incumbents are supposed to learn from the mistakes in their first terms and adjust accordingly. In practice, it rarely happens. Power is temporal. Within two years into his term, a mayor begins to look, walk and quack like a lame duck, a condition that worsens in direct correlation to his last day in office.

Nutter has the advantage of living under a City Charter that provides for a strong-mayor form of government. He has an array of political and bureaucratic tools as his disposal that many chief executives would envy.

But, the first term of Michael Nutter raises an interesting question: What happens in a strong mayor form of government when you have a weak mayor? The short answer is, not much. Looking back, that phrase characterizes Nutter's first term. He withstood the winds of the recession, through budget cuts, but also by raising taxes: The sales tax went up (from 7 percent to 8 percent); scheduled cuts in wage and business taxes were halted (temporarily, it is said.); real estate tax went up 10 percent; a $150 fee for commercial trash collection was imposed. In short, he did not use the financial crisis to restructure city government in any significant way. Michael Nutter51308.jpg

As to the rest, there isn't much to list, unless you start adding the word "not" to every sentence. There have not been any major government scandals. The administration has not been able to get 311 system off the ground in any real way. There has not been any noticeable progress in getting new contracts with the city's non-uniformed workers. There has not been any improvement in neighborhood services - though the public did beat back attempts by the mayor to close libraries and rec center pools.  This is not the stuff legacies are made of.

The mayor remains his pleasant and personable self - an improvement over his predecessor, (and perhaps future competitor)  John Street, aka Mayor Prickly. But, he hasn't been the pro-active and creative politician he was in City Council. The Michael Nutter who was willing to take risks, stake out unpopular positions, and yet remain effective has disappeared behind his smile.

In a way, this is not a surprise. There has always been a duality to Nutter's nature. He's the Democratic reformer who is a Democratic ward leader. He's the black politician who successfully navigates the world of white voters. He's a change agent who is reluctant to make change - if it entails making enemies. The most striking feature of his first term was how risk averse he was. One source likened him to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady - whose MO is to keep everyone happy.

Nutter also has a tendency to strike poses and take positions over matters not in his control -- the high-drop out rate in the public schools, for instance, or hunger in the city -- but remains elusive or silent on issues where he can play a direct role. New contracts with city employees comes to mind.

The central issue of city government - in 2007 and now - is how to reconcile the ever rising cost of employee salaries and benefits with the need to deliver services to citizens. It now costs $104,000 a year on average for each city employee - this in a city where median household income is about $38,000 a year. Health costs continue to rise, as do payments to the city's (seriously under funded) pension fund. The police and fire fighters, who recently were awarded new contracts through arbitration, are getting pay increases. Nutter knew when he ran for mayor that unless the trajectory of employee costs was altered this component of the city budget would, in effect, eat the capacity of the city to perform other functions, other than meeting payroll. The mayor's own five-year plan calls the situation "untenable and unsustainable," but offers no remedy.

Through inaction in the first three years, the mayor has done nothing to change the trajectory, at least in the near term. Unless the economy heats up again and higher tax revenue rolls in, in his second term he will face the same-old-same old - trimming the capacity of city departments to deliver services and increasing taxes to keep up with the rising cost of employee benefits. It's the municipal version of the movie Groundhog Day. On top of that, he may have to divert city money to the public schools, which face a monster deficit. The Education Mayor will be asked this year to deliver on that self-bestowed title.

Last week, after the primary election, I made calls to people around town who are smart about politics and public policy and asked them the same question: What are the three things you think Nutter should do in his second term?

"What three things should he do?" replied one. "The first thing I would do is have him do three things.  Do something.  Legacies are not made of 'I was interested in everything and did nothing.'"

His inaction on negotiating new contracts did him little good.  The truculent fire fighters union endorsed Milton Street, as did District Council 33, which represents the city's blue -collar employees.  The Fraternal Order of Police and the white-collar District Council 47 sat the primary out.  They could not bring themselves to endorse Street, nor would they back Nutter.

In other words, Nutter owes these unions nothing -- and would lose nothing by extracting concessions from them in new contracts. Does he have the moxie to stare down the unions on these issues? Probably not, especially if it means taking a strike. But, there was a consensus among those I talked to that he must try to get game-changing contracts. 

Sooner or later, the tension between what he says and what he does will begin to shape Nutter's image and legacy. You can't be the tax reformer who raises taxes. You can't be the champion of libraries and then try to close them. You can't be a mayor committed to the "greening" of Philadelphia and then cut the $1 million in your budget for planting trees. You can't be the political reformer who ends up basing his endorsements of Council candidates in the May primary on their willingness to vote for Marion Tasco for Council President.  And you can't be the opponent of the DROP program while supporting Tasco, the surviving poster girl of DROP abuse, who is due to collect $498,000 in DROP payments in December without retiring.

Finally, you can't be the champion of openness and transparency in government and then get caught trying to sneak in a tax increase to accompany the major change underway in how the city determines property taxes.  That reform, touted as revenue neutral, has become a secret plot to soak taxpayers.

Most of those I talked to last week did not have any specific steps they wanted Nutter to take.  The theme, sounded again and again, was to encourage him to be a leader -- and lead, to narrow the distance between what he says and what he does and to have the political courage to make the significant changes needed in the way city government operates. "He should be more of a leader and less of a ward leader," said one.

In a conversation last week about Nutter, I got to wondering what his legacy as mayor will be. "Not much, if you look at his first term," replied the person on the other end of the line. "He still has the second term. But, it's hard to see that he will change the way he operates.  That's sort of hard-wired in.  So maybe at the end of two terms, he won't have much of a legacy at all."

For Michael Nutter, who offered so much hope and promise, that would be a tragic ending. He has four years to change it.

 

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