For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)
One day in mid-March, Shaniqua Watson’s turn finally came to sit at the witness table in the ornate council chamber. Even before she spoke she set tongues to wagging – and confused the council members present – by arriving alone, without the vast entourage of staff that traditionally accompanied department commissioners to budget hearings so they could answer the many obscure questions that members of council often asked on such occasions. Instead, she was accompanied only by a laptop computer, which she opened as soon as she took her seat.
Expecting a long and difficult day – the mayor had warned her about the party’s hostility toward her attempt to deliver accessible, quality public services – Watson kept her opening remarks brief, summarizing her department’s responsibilities, giving a statistical overview of its performance, and pointing out that while on the whole the mayor had proposed that his government do the same job in the coming year as it was doing in the current year with the exact same amount of money, she now was proposing to do more than in the current year with two percent less than the current year’s budget.
The seven council members present – out of seventeen members, since most preferred not to get involved in the nuts and bolts of city government or were off doing the day jobs they held because it was ridiculous that some people expected them to live on their $105,000 annual salaries alone – looked aghast. Budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella voiced the concern of her colleagues.
“Are you serious?” she asked Watson.
“Yes, councilwoman. It’s all right there, in the budget.”
In the gallery, Gene Dowler of the Gazette nudged the Post’s Megan Malone.
“Watson’s right, it’s all there, in the budget. Council’s had it for three weeks. Is Mary being disingenuous or just stupid?” he whispered.
“I’m not sure, but when it comes to Mary, you’ll seldom go wrong betting on stupid.”
“Councilwoman Amordella, if you’ll recall, I contacted your office last week and offered to present this budget to you personally prior to this hearing. I was told that you declined my offer,” Watson said.
The councilwoman said nothing.
“Commissioner Watson, if I may.”
The speaker was Councilman Barber, who represented an especially low-income area of Philadelphia and took great pride in championing his constituents’ interests.
“Commissioner Watson, how do you propose doing the same job in the coming year with a smaller budget than you have now?”
“That’s not what I said,” Watson replied.
“It most certainly is. So you’re admitting that Philadelphians, including my constituents, will be expected to settle for less in the coming year because of your failure to negotiate an adequate budget with the mayor’s staff?”
Expressions of support could be heard from the gallery.
“That’s not what I said,” Watson repeated. “I said we intend to deliver more service even with a smaller budget.”
“And how do you plan to do that?” he asked.
“Better management. We will do more with less,” she insisted.
“How?” Barber asked in an incredulous, mocking tone.
“In a number of ways, councilman. For starters, we’ll take advantage of some of the capital funds set aside for our use to purchase new equipment that will make our workforce more productive.”
“So while our playgrounds and libraries go unbuilt because the mayor says the city can’t afford them, you get to buy new toys for your department? That’s outrageous,” Barber declared.
“Councilman, the mayor cut my capital budget twenty-eight percent. This is what I’m doing with what he left me.”
“And our playgrounds?”
“I’m the streets commissioner, not the recreation commissioner. I wouldn’t presume to speak for her or the mayor.
“As I was saying, we’ll also purchase some very innovative software I used in Baltimore to redraw our trash collection and snow removal routes. This will enable us not to replace some workers as they retire or move on.”
“Software you say you used in Baltimore?”
“Well, this is Philadelphia, commissioner. The population of Philadelphia is more than twice that of Baltimore and our city is three times larger in area. We need Philadelphia solutions to our problems, not Baltimore solutions. You’re in the big city now, commissioner, and the sooner you realize that, the better.”
“Yes, councilman, I realize I’m in the big city now. I saw the sign when I drove up I-95 when I moved here.”
Commissioner, that kind of response is unacceptable.”
Watson ignored Barber’s admonition.
“The software we used in Baltimore also has been used with excellent results in Houston and Chicago – two cities that are bigger than Philadelphia,” Watson replied.
“To continue, the final major component of doing more with less is that I expect to be able to identify significant savings in several contracts for supplies and services that we’ll rebid when they expire at the end of the current fiscal year.”
Barber turned toward one of his colleagues, Councilman David Steers. Steers was a trial lawyer on those rare occasions when someone made the horrible misjudgment of hiring him, and he and Barber had agreed that he should do most of the day’s questioning of Watson.
Steers rose and cleared his throat as Barber took his seat.
“Those are some interesting tactics you’re proposing, little lady,” he began.
Watson did not respond to his attempted insult.
“They’re not tactics, councilman, they’re management strategies, and I believe they’re sound strategies.”
Philadelphians, Steers knew, harbored enormous mistrust of educated people, and he thought he might take this opportunity to subject Watson to the ridicule of the literally hundreds of thousands of city residents who never finished high school – as if such individuals followed the proceedings of their city council – and who recognized no correlation whatsoever between their incomplete education and their struggle to find employment and earn a decent living and therefore saw no reason to encourage their own children to complete their education or even their homework, let alone pursue higher education.
“Well, we haven’t all had the opportunity to get an MBA like you, commissioner,” he said sharply.
“Or a law degree, for that matter, like you,” Watson replied.
Steers grew red in the face.
“Let’s take a closer look at your ‘management strategies,’” Steers said, regaining his composure and raising his fingers to create quotation marks in the air as he said the words “management strategies.”
“Commissioner, a moment ago you said you thought you’d be able to collect the city’s trash with fewer men in the future.”
Watson interrupted him.
“Men and women,” she interjected.
“We employ a number of women who throw trash as well.”
“Very well,” Steers said, a little off balance from the unexpected correction. “Men and women. You’re probably not aware of this, being an outsider and still a stranger to Philadelphia, but this is a very strong union town and none of our unions are going to stand by while some outsider reduces their membership. They’ll strike and grind this city to a halt before they allow that.”
“Actually, councilman, the union is already on board with this plan.”
“I’ve met with Mr. Gilliam, the local’s president, and he’s on board with what we’re planning.”
“That’s not possible,” Steers insisted.
“Not possible yet nonetheless true, councilman. I’ve met with him several times to outline what we have in mind. He indicated that in consideration for certain recent management initiatives that he and his members strongly support, he’s willing to accept a minor reduction in workforce so long as no layoffs are involved.”
The councilman/trial lawyer thought he had the commissioner now.
“So you’re negotiating such matters outside the city’s collective bargaining process and current contract with the union?”
Watson paused for a moment, sorted through several folders, and then opened the folder she had brought to the top of the pile.
“Actually, councilman, in section fourteen, paragraph six of the collective bargaining agreement, on page 118, you’ll find a clause that specifically permits such side negotiations and agreements subject to the mutual agreement of both parties, legal review by the city solicitor, and written notification of city council through a stipulated process.”
“I never received such notification,” Steers bellowed indignantly. He looked to his fellow council members. “Have any of you?” His six colleagues all shook their heads from side to side.
“We delivered notice to council president’s office, with a copy to council’s counsel, more than two weeks ago. I have copies of signed receipts for the correspondence.”
“But council members haven’t been notified,” Steers declared. “This council will not tolerate such disrespect, young lady.”
“If you intend no disrespect yourself, councilman, you wouldn’t call me ‘young lady.’”
Steers was taken aback; the audience stirred and the reporters sat up and tried to pay attention.
“Notwithstanding your clear disrespect for me, councilman, I intended no disrespect of you and your colleagues. While the contract explicitly requires notification only of council’s president and chief counsel, we also notified the chairman of council’s streets committee in writing and separately, by email, we notified all fifteen other council members and their respective chiefs of staff.”
“I received no such notification,” Steers protested.
“You did,” Watson replied.
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“I have receipt notification from all thirty email recipients. I was pleased to learn that the city’s intranet offers such a feature. If the councilman would like to see copies…”
“Let’s move on,” Steers cut her off.
“Tell us about these contract savings you envision.”
“Very well,” Watson said.
“I’ve reviewed every contract our department has for services and supplies that expires at the end of the current fiscal year and discovered several for which, in my professional opinion, the city is paying far too much for what it’s receiving in return.”
“And you believe you can do better than our city’s award-winning procurement department?” Steers asked, referring to a department that had, in fact, won no awards and had never come across a city contract it could not find a way to rationalize awarding to a politically connected company.
“I believe I can, yes. I know vendors that will give us the same quality at a lower cost – and, in some cases, for a much lower cost.”
“And these vendors, they’re owned or run by friends of yours?” Steers asked sternly. He could not imagine directing contracts to parties that did not meet such criteria.
“Absolutely not, councilman,” Watson replied. “I would never permit a friend or relative to bid on a contract for any public operations in which I’m involved.”
“I doubt the savings are that great,” Steers suggested.
“Let me give you an example,” Watson replied.
“That won’t be necessary,” Steers said. He suddenly realized he might have made a mistake in raising the question of favoritism in awarding contracts because he knew that more than a few of his council colleagues and political associates benefited from such favoritism.
“Really, councilman, I think this is a useful discussion.
“Let’s take a look at the blue recycling buckets we provide for free to every city residence. Under the current contract we pay $4.18 per bucket, and we generally purchase about 55,000 buckets a year. That’s an annual expenditure of $229,900.
“When I put out a bid for similar buckets in Baltimore, $4.18 per bucket would have been the high bid, not the winning bid. The company we awarded the contract to was located in Alabama, and we paid $2.04 a bucket – less than half of what Philadelphia is paying today. So if we could get a similar contract here, we could save more than $100,000 a year.”
At this moment Steers could not help himself; he felt he had a point he absolutely had to try to make because all of his other attempts to embarrass Watson had failed so miserably. In so doing, he momentarily forgot that this was probably an issue better avoided.
“Yes, but isn’t our contract with a Philadelphia company?” Steers knew that it was. “And wouldn’t awarding it to a company in Alabama cost local jobs and essentially…” he paused just briefly before raising his voice to a higher volume, “take food out of the mouths of our some of city’s children?” Steers leaned back in his chair, a smile of satisfaction filling his face.
“That was my first thought, too, councilman, so I looked into it a little further,” Watson said.
Steers’ smile evaporated. He now remembered why he had had misgivings about pursuing this particular line of inquiry.
“The current holder of this contract is a Philadelphia company called Harrowgate Services,” Watson continued. “It incorporated two weeks after the city put out the bid for the bucket contract. Its owners are the city’s former finance director, the wife of a ward leader, and one of your law partners, councilman. According to city records, the company pays no wage taxes, which means it has no employees, so no local children are counting on salaries from parents employed by this company to keep them in Cheerios and chocolate milk. The business use tax it pays suggests that it has no revenue other than this particular contract. Clearly, this was a company formed by some very politically connected people who got together for the specific purpose of bidding on this contract and this contract alone.”
“That’ll do, commissioner.”
“I agree, but there’s just one more thing. Just to be clear that this price differential has nothing to do with the quality of the goods, the buckets that the Alabama company sold us in Baltimore two years ago were made at the same plant in China as the buckets Harrowgate Services is selling us now for twice the price. The buckets are identical.”
“I said that’ll do, commissioner.”
“But last year,” Watson persisted, “the Alabama company started manufacturing its own buckets, which means that in addition to producing a quality product at a superior price, it’s now creating jobs for American workers.”
“Minimum wage jobs, no doubt,” Steers harrumphed – as if thousands of his constituents, living in an area where the unemployment rate hovered around twenty percent, would not appreciate the opportunity to find any job, including one that paid minimum wage.
“Union jobs, actually,” Watson replied.
Committee chairwoman Amordella had seen enough. She struck her gavel and adjourned the hearing until the following morning.
(More next Sunday)