Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Michael Nutter and Political Courage

Hmmm.
It will be exactly one year since this city's political leaders shelved the Route 15 trolley - an estimated $82 million public works project that was already paid for, and ready to resume its historic route along the Girard Avenue corridor.

Why?

Because Carol Campbell, a ward leader who also happens to be an officer in Philadelphia's Democratic City Committee, didn't want to lose parking on one side of a block in her neighborhood.

"I don't think anyone would really have objected to the trolley itself, but when they started talking about taking away the parking, well, that was a different story," said Campbell, who lives on the adjacent block.

-snip-

A compromise position — make room by turning the block into a one-way street — was rejected by neighbors.

City Councilman Michael Nutter, who could have forced the issue by introducing a city ordinance to change the traffic pattern, opted not to do so.
From the smoking ban to ethics reform, Michael Nutter is often portrayed as a guy who puts the interests of the city first. For example, his tax reform proposal is supposed to be part of an overall strategy to promote economic growth. Frankly, a good public transit system is essential to development and shared prosperity. So why is Nutter letting this multi-million dollar project get bogged down in ward politics?

11 Comments:

At 2:04 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

I would encourage everyone to read the article.

It is a perfect example of how the ward fiefdom trumps all, especially common sense, and any real vision for the City.

 
At 2:16 PM, Blogger Friedman said...

I'd encourage everybody to read the article because it makes it pretty clear that you can't lay the whole thing at Nutter's feet.

 
At 2:38 PM, Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

Sorry Dan, I am not sure I agree with your take on the article. The DN analysis in today's paper was pretty simplistic.

There are a lot of folks who have been following this issue for the past year who would say that SEPTA is really at fault and just plain doesn't want to operate any new light rail lines. They were forced by the City during Rendell's era to restore service and have been dragging their feet ever since.

With the Girard Avenue trolley issue, SEPTA could easily satisfy Carol Campbell and her constituents by either laying a block's worth of new track or building a switch to allow the trolley to bypass this block altogether. They have said that they would do this by June, but haven’t because some suspect that they don’t want to be bothered operating trolleys at all.

Cleary, as Ben suggests, Nutter should take the lead on this. He hasn't. Maybe this is indicative of the power of Ward leaders, but there is no reform movement that will change that nor is one needed.

Carol Campbell protecting the "right" to park one her street is about as classic an example of local politics as you will ever find. There is no "corruption" here that needs to be "reformed." At the neighborhood level, standing up to big institutions on behalf of residents is exactly the kind of leadership one should expect from a ward leader. Nutter should talk to Campbell about this and work with her to come up with a compromise, as is the job of a person representing a whole council district and not just a ward, but he isn’t.

Why?

Because he is too busy following the lead of the Chamber of Commerce and Philadelphia Forward on business privilege tax reductions which were put forward to benefit the wealthiest of businesses in this city (coated with a thin veneer of rhetoric about the benefits of BPT elimination for small business owners). Nutter is so busy building a fundraising base for his 07 mayoral race that a trolley on Girard Ave became the least of his concerns.

As far as I can tell , “ward fiefdom” has played very little role in any of the policy stances Nutter pushes so I am unclear why you think in this case that ward leaders would prevent him from leaping in and fixing the problems that do arise when micro interests are pitted against macro interests.

 
At 3:06 PM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Well, ok, let me address it point by point:
Cleary, as Ben suggests, Nutter should take the lead on this. He hasn't. Maybe this is indicative of the power of Ward leaders, but there is no reform movement that will change that nor is one needed.
If this is indicative of the power of ward leaders, how would we have no need to change it? And, maybe I misunderstand you, in fact, I probably do, but how would a movement that removes power from a set of little kings and queens all over the City not change that?

Carol Campbell protecting the "right" to park one her street is about as classic an example of local politics as you will ever find. There is no "corruption" here that needs to be "reformed." Well, many things that need reform may not be corrupt. I never used the word corrupt. But I think a system where a very, very quasi elected official, especially one who controls as much as she does, and has as much power as she does to make people's lives miserable, in neighborhoods all over the City, is a system that is out of whack. So, it may not be "corrupt" that a District Councilman can stop any project at all in their district, if they are not feigned respect, but I think it is stupid. And, sure, many times it leads to corruption.

At the neighborhood level, standing up to big institutions on behalf of residents is exactly the kind of leadership one should expect from a ward leader. Nutter should talk to Campbell about this and work with her to come up with a compromise, as is the job of a person representing a whole council district and not just a ward, but he isn’t.

That is fine and good, but I guess standing up on behalf of residents who demand the right to block mass transit so they can park illegally strikes me again, as not the best thing in the world.

Because he is too busy following the lead of the Chamber of Commerce and Philadelphia Forward on business privilege tax reductions which were put forward to benefit the wealthiest of businesses in this city (coated with a thin veneer of rhetoric about the benefits of BPT elimination for small business owners). Nutter is so busy building a fundraising base for his 07 mayoral race that a trolley on Girard Ave became the least of his concerns.

I guess I will just say that statement has a little hyperbole in it, and a little truth. Is this a "Mayoral issue" that he pushing? No. And that has to be a reason that he does not seem to particularly care, and joins everyone else in passing the buck to another person. But, I wouldn't say that you can really blame this one on PF and the like. Mayoral ambitions? Sure. Ignoring a project in your neighborhood because one of the most powerful ward leaders in the City tells you she doesn't want it? Likely. Because he is too busy with PF and the BPT? I find it hard to believe.

As far as I can tell , “ward fiefdom” has played very little role in any of the policy stances Nutter pushes so I am unclear why you think in this case that ward leaders would prevent him from leaping in and fixing the problems that do arise when micro interests are pitted against macro interests.

Well maybe I should have just said fiefdoms, or, ward and city council fiefdoms, where an individual actor, be it a ward leader or a Councilman, can hold up something that benefits the City, benefits the poor, benefits the environment, because they feel like it.

But, I didnt really say the Philly fiefdom has affected the issues which Nutter has pushed, and if I conveyed that, then I made a mistake.

Back to this specific project:

There are a lot of folks who have been following this issue for the past year who would say that SEPTA is really at fault and just plain doesn't want to operate any new light rail lines. They were forced by the City during Rendell's era to restore service and have been dragging their feet ever since.

Philadelphia is full of agencies and actors, from SEPTA to the Phillies, who have as much political savvy, or relate to neighbors as well as Jim Thome hits a fastball. So, I do not doubt that SEPTA has some fault in this. That much, I agree with you on.

Everything else though, I guess we agree to disagree.

 
At 5:10 PM, Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

Dan, you refer to Carol Campbell as a "quasi elected official" who has the power to "make people's lives miserable, in neighborhoods all over the City." Since I am no stranger to hyperbole I feel pretty comfortable saying that you are dipping into the well a bit yourself.

Illegal or not, residents of one block of Campbell's ward have been parking on both sides of the street for 12 years now (since the last Rt. 15 trolley ran in 1992). A crappy neighbor (SEPTA) finally left, and they rejoiced by parking on both sides of the street.

One year ago, SEPTA came in with and told folks they had to change back to the way it was before. The people were mad and told their ward leader that they did not like it.

What is wrong with that? That is how communities function. People identify leaders to take a stand on issues that matter to neighbors.

Are these neighborhood residents wrong? Yes, their parochialism is costing a lot of other neighborhoods access to better transit and a real economic development too. However, to expect Carol Campbell and her constituents to think about the global impact of their decision not to give up parking is unrealistic.

It is city-wide leaders who need to do this. Nutter is where the buck should have stopped. It didn't. Mayor Street, Faye Moore of SEPTA, Pedro Ramos, Managing Director, hell even Lynne Abraham could have all stepped in too and they didn't.

However, this is Nutter's district and his absence is conspicuous.

So, I guess where we disagree, Dan, is that I don't see how removing the ward and division structure solves the problem. You say "If this [SEPTA issue] is indicative of the power of ward leaders, how would we have no need to change it? And, maybe I misunderstand you, in fact, I probably do, but how would a movement that removes power from a set of little kings and queens all over the City not change that?" Are you implying that the ward and division structure itself, rather than just its leaders, needs to be removed? Because, again Campbell has every right, even if she is wrong, to pressure Nutter and others not to give away her parking but ultimately it is Nutter who has to stand up and do what is right even if a small group of citizens disagrees. removing the wards won't remove this central conflict.

 
At 3:22 AM, Blogger Charles said...

I think that there are several things going on here. First, I agree with Ray that it is a Ward Leader’s job to look out for the community, even if the community is not being reasonable. And, trust me, if it wasn’t a Ward Leader, it would be some other “Community Organization” running pass block on this.

Nutter’s Mayoral hopes are probably at work here. He will not beat Chakah by pissing off people in West Philly. That’s one part of it. But the other part is simple, and this is where I kind of disagree with Ray. Nutter, like Campbell, was elected to fight for his respective district's wishes, however unreasonable. Does it matter that it screws the rest of the city? Well, not really. It’s his job to screw the rest of the city for his district. Isn’t it? That’s why we have Council at Large, because the district council people are all about their little fiefdom.

 
At 8:47 AM, Blogger DanielUA said...

I disagree, sort of, Charles.

Well, maybe not even disagree. But, the problem I see if that all power in Philly basically stem from controlling an rea. So, ward leader A, or Councilman from District B doesn't like something, and bam, it is stopped. So, then we have the at-larg councilman who are supposed to mediate that? Really, though, what power do they have? they have a small bully pulpit, and thats it. In the grand scheme of things they are outnumbered, and have no real chits to play, because in a system where geography rules, they have nothing.

 
At 12:28 PM, Blogger Pat Evans/Butcher/Wicks said...

Dan-

I hear what you are saying.

I say this with an open mind- if not geography, what?

My concern is that you remove local, neighborhood based systems of power and you end up with a system where money rules (even more).

Now we all have questions about Neighborhood Network, but even they are not advocating an end to the geographically based distribution of leadership in the city. Are you?

 
At 1:11 AM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Since you mentioned Neighborhood Networks...

I suspect some hyperbole on both sides -- or a bit of devil's advocacy maybe? I suspect that Dan doesn't really want to dismantle a system that, theoretically, would provide a way for local residents to have input over decisions that have a local as well as larger-scale impact. I also suspect that Ray isn't satisfied with the current ward system as it currently functions. One question I would have here is whether the outcome in this particular issue was predicated upon Campbell's personal parking preferences, or was she really acting in response to her constituancy? Do we have any way of knowing? You seem to know that she was Ray. How do you know that? I think part of the question is the lack of real accountability and transparency, or at least the perception that those qualities are inconsistant, in the least.

So, here's the plug. If Neighborhood Networks can help make the ward structure truly accountable by applying true "bottom-up" pressure on representatives, then some of these difficult balancing acts that require weighing the rights of the local residents against the needs of the larger community, might seem to have less sleezy outcomes, even if effectively the results are the same.

And certainly Nutter, (although I'm new to following Phila politics at a detailed level, so I'm trying to extrapolate from reading boths sides of the argument), is one of those who needs to prove his accountability.

So, jump in and lend your support to NN (if you haven't already).

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger Dumplingeater said...

Oh yeah, while I'm at it --
Ray, you said "Now we all have questions about Neighborhood Network" (by the way -- it's Neighborhood Networks, not that it really matters).

Just curious, what are those questions? Neighborhood Networks needs feedback from skeptics in order to evolve.

 
At 6:59 PM, Blogger Marc said...

In my role as a member and organizer for the Pennsylvania Transit Coalition (PTC), for the last six weeks I have to help get the 15 Trolley issue unstuck.
First I went to SEPTA. Though Ray is right that SEPTA was opposed to restarting the 15 trolley, they definitely want to see some result from the $82 million they spent. And SEPTA acknowledges that the Callowhill Depot has been a thorn in the necks of neighbors for some time, particularly because SEPTA workers take a lot of the local parking spaces.

SEPTA is willing to go pretty far to satisfy the neighbors. They are willing to spend $750,000 to move the trolley tracks to the middle of the street. This would allow for two way streets with parking on both sides of the street. There is, however, one hitch. The streets do not quite meet the legal width necessary for two lanes of traffic, parking on both sides of the street, and the trolley. So SEPTA would like Michael Nutter to introduce an ordinance that would allow for this configuration on the street. So far that has not happened.

(Does it make sense to spend this kind of money to allow people to park in what continue to be illegal spaces? I don’t know. Given the history in the neighborhood, perhaps it makes sense for SEPTA to go out of its way to satisfy the neighbors.)

SEPTA is also willing to build a parking lot in the neighborhood and address some other issues.
SEPTA has presented this proposal to Carol Campbell. But my understanding is that she has not been willing to meet with SEPTA. I hoped that the PTC as a neutral party could hold some community meetings about SEPTA’s proposals. I tried six different ways to contact Carol Campbell and was never go a response. (I suspect Carol Campbell is still angry at me for running against her ally State Rep. Rosita Youngblood, last year.)

There is nothing wrong with ward leaders defending their community. I strongly support politics that begins with the local community. That is one reason Neighborhood Networks is organized on a division and ward model. But it is not obvious that this is what going on in this case. It is not clear how refusing to hold community meetings with SEPTA serves the community.

The fundamental problem is that our ward leaders are not really responsive to their communities. This is, in part, because no one pays attention to the election of the committee people, who elect the ward leader. And it is in part because ward leaders have the tools—patronage jobs, fixed parking tickets, and other perks—that allow them to control committee people. The formally democratic ward and division system is not democratic in the real world.

 

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