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The Custodial Mayor

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

The Michael Nutter who was sworn into a second term this week is a different man than the one who was inaugurated in 2008.

Within months of the new mayor taking up residence in City Hall, the nation headed into a long and deep recession. The decline in our economic fortune defined Nutter's first term, as he had to wrestle with a sharp and sudden drop in revenues.

The man who went into City Hall vowing to reform government and boost the city's economy ending up wrestling with declining tax revenue. His answer was a mixture of budget cuts and tax increases that has essentially frozen government in place for the last three years.

The number of city employees has declined -- through attrition only, there were no layoffs -- and the size of government has shrunk, when compared to inflation.

Nutter did act on the key elements of his agenda -- to return integrity to City Hall, to lower the crime rate, to improve the public schools -- with mixed results, often defined by the skills of the people he named to perform those tasks.

With Joan Markman, a former federal prosecutor who is the city's chief integrity officer, he found a capable watchdog over city government and its employees, who appears utterly unafraid to take on even the most connected of the connected. An active and aggressive Board of Ethics has helped in the task.Nutter 2.jpg

With Commissioner Charles Ramsey, imported from Chicago, the mayor found a veteran police officer popular with his own troops and the public. While the crime numbers have gone down, a fact that should give comfort to the public, Ramsey's confident demeanor has probably done as much to calm the public's fears than anything else. He remains, far and away, the most popular public figure in the city.

With Arlene Ackerman, named head to the school district in 2008, Nutter got an educational reformer with three decades of experience in public education. She proved to be a disaster. In August, after the district's budget imploded because of steep declines in state and federal aid, Ackerman was fired; given a $900,000 severance payment to go away. The district, with a new acting superintendent, seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and Nutter has had to become much more personally involved in (and more visibly responsible for) what goes on at district headquarters. (Officially, it was the School Reform Commission that hired Ackerman, but Nutter had his say and approved.)

Nutter entered office with a mandate to make a new contract with city employees that would face the realities of modern municipal government: the high cost for fringe benefits, especially pension costs, far outstrip the means to meet them. When the recession hit in his first year in office, the mayor had the opportunity to confront the unions with a list of concessions. He did not. Though the police and fire unions got new contracts through arbitration, the city's blue- and white-collar workers have gone without new contracts for three years, increasing the pressure for wage increases and increased city health payments. Meeting those demands could be the most costly item in the city budget over the next four years -- though no one is sure exactly how costly.

The mayor's people have chosen to spin his inaction on union contracts as a clever game of rope-a-dope that has held the line on employee expenses. To outsiders, though, it looks like a sign of weakness -- an unwillingness of the mayor to confront the defining issue of governments everywhere these days: Mercedes benefit packages in an age of austerity.

Collectively, City Council has seemed to reach the conclusion that Nutter is a weak mayor, who can be denied what he wants with impunity. They have spurned many of his proposals (the sugared-drink tax and trash fees are two recent examples) in favor of pursuing their own agendas, a trend that is likely to intensify in Nutter's second term, as he becomes a lame duck.

If Nutter had a chance to leap to the next level of elected office -- say, as governor or U.S. Senator -- he would still have the potential of clout. But, the rounds of tax increases he pushed through in his first term, and the rounds he may push through in his second (watch out for a sidedoor increase in real estate taxes) have effectively ended his chance for statewide office. Tax-and-spend Democrats from big cities usually crash and burn just over the city line.

The makers of the City Charter designed it to tilt power to the mayor. Their goal, to install a strong mayor form of government, is what we have had in Philadelphia, for better or worse, for 60 years. Now, in Nutter's second term, we may witness the fulfillment of a trend that began in his first: A mayor who reigns while Council rules.

Nutter's second term will be defined, in part, by internals -- the politics and personalities, as they swirl around the mayor's office and City Hall.

But, as in the first term, much of the mayor's time will be spent grappling with the externals -- economic and demographic forces that have the power to reshape the future of the Philadelphia.

The internals get the most ink, but can look trivial compared to the external forces that can touch every citizen in every neighborhood.

A lot that is positive has happened in Philadelphia in the last decade, a trend personified by a revivified and expanding Center City. Center City is the place where the middle class is moving in, not out; where a mini-baby boom has meant a growth in population, not a decline. If Philadelphia is a car, then Center City is its engine, and -- even in recession -- it continues to hum along.

But, Greater Center City -- as defined by river to river, Girard to Tasker -- is home to 180,000 people. Another 1.3 million Philadelphians live somewhere else.

The trend lines in many of these neighborhoods are not positive. In the years ahead, Philadelphia will have to face the broad forces that, for better or worse, will determine the city's future.

For Nutter, his second term presents him with an opportunity to tackle the unfinished business of the first, especially dealing with contracts for city employees. District Council 33, which represents blue collar workers, and District Council 47, which is the union for white-collar workers, have not engaged in serious contract negotiations with the city for months. Something has to give -- and the fear is that union leaders, short of money for health care costs, will insist on higher wages and benefits to make up for three lost years.

The other item looming is the structural deficit in the city's pension fund. It will owe $10 billion to current and future retirees, but is about $4.5 billion short. That "b" is not a misprint.

Sam Katz, the head of the state oversight board, has suggested the city sell assets -- the airport and the Gas Works come to mind -- to raise the billions needed to feed the pension kitty.

There is no evidence from his first term that Nutter is willing to tackle these two issues in any significant way. To get concessions from city employees, he would probably have to take a strike.

To settle the debts of the pension fund would require shedding city assets that provide jobs and income to city government.

Confrontational politics, as practiced by Gov Christie in New Jersey and, to a lesser degree, by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, are not in Nutter's personal or political tool kit.

It is more likely that this weakened mayor will muddle through, as we muddled through the recession, without making any fundamental change in the way government operates.

Someone once wrote that there are essentially two kinds of executive branch leaders: custodians and activists. FDR is an examples of an activist, Eisenhower of a custodian.

Nutter was elected as an activist mayor, but to a surprising degree, he has been custodial.

When he was in Council, he articulated a case against the status quo. As mayor, he has embodied the status quo and has done nothing to change the city's tax structure, its relationship with its employees, the Democratic political organization, the trade unions that dominate the party and define the way Philadelphia works.

He has been pleasant, amicable, articulate and generally ineffectual or disengaged when it comes to core issues. He prefers to work on issues on the periphery that draw publicity but little organized opposition. The mayor, for instance, is against crime, homicide, guns and in favor of children graduating from high school.

To expect his political habits to change much in his second term is unrealistic. There's no Cuomo or Christie lurking somewhere deep inside Michael Nutter. He has turned out to be a different man we thought he was four years ago.  We all have to face that fact.

 

Part Two: The forces that are changing the city. 

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