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.)
The mayor’s staff wanted to resolve its remaining budget differences with council so that council could pass the city budget, so one afternoon, the mayor’s chief of staff, Wilma O’Neill, met in her office with Roberta Belkin, chief of staff for council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella. The two women had a good working relationship, and over the course of nearly two hours they sat across from one another and, with no aides in the room and as they had on several other occasions in recent days, discussed and resolved more than a dozen of the specific complaints council had about the mayor’s proposed budget. This was a new list of council demands – the third such new list, actually. Every time the mayor and his staff thought they had satisfied council’s latest demands, council turned around and delivered an entirely new set of requirements that it insisted must be addressed before it could possibly act on the budget. Still more needed to be done but Belkin had another meeting to attend, so they agreed to resume work together the following morning.
As Belkin began gathering her papers, they continued talking.
“This went well,” O’Neill said. “I don’t see anything left on the list that strikes me as an insurmountable obstacle. We’ll need what, another two or three hours, but after that, I think we’ll be done.”
“For the issues on the list, yes, and assuming we can somehow get our money from the state,” Belkin replied.
“The mayor’s still confident.”
“Even without Ianucci to help?”
“He says he thinks the delegation will rise to the challenge, that there are several very capable people representing the city in the capital who’ve been waiting for an opportunity to show what they can do and now see this as their chance to shine.”
“Capable people in our Harrisburg delegation?” Belkin asked. Since when?”
“That’s what he says. Anyhow, we’ll be done soon, I think, and then council can vote on the budget.”
“Oh, come on, Wilma.”
“What?” O’Neill asked.
“You and I have been working on these individual budget issues for about eight hours now over three meetings and you’ve never once mentioned the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“What’re you talking about, Roberta?”
“Shaniqua Watson. I’m not saying that the stuff we’re working on isn’t important, because it is, but it’s the easy stuff. This delay is all about Shaniqua Watson, and until they work that out, the rest is all just window-dressing.”
“No, I’m not. Council wants her head, and I don’t think they’re going to pass a budget until they get it.”
“Roberta, she’s doing a great job. You’ve spent your entire career in the public sector. Have you ever, in all those years, seen a performance that even remotely approaches what she’s achieved in less than five months with our streets department?”
“She saves money, she improves performance, the public loves her, the press loves her, and even her workers and the unions love her. Everyone loves her.”
“Not council. They hate her.”
“Come on, they’ve been telling you and the mayor why for months now. They feel undermined. Calls and letters requesting constituent service are down fifty percent. They’re afraid voters are going to see them as irrelevant.”
“Because we’ve cut out the middle man and deliver services better than ever?”
“Don’t tell me, Wilma. You’re preaching to the choir. Her performance totally blows me away. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Look, I’m a budget person, not a political person. If it were up to me I’d clone her, but the politicians hate her. Council members hate her, and they spend half the day on the phone with ward leaders and other political types who’re complaining about her.”
“You would think they’d appreciate having the burden of the little stuff lifted off their shoulders so they could focus on the big picture of the city’s future.”
“You’re being naive, Wilma. These people are all politicians. They have nothing to offer Philadelphia. Can you think of even one person on council who has the capacity to address the big picture, to think through the city’s issues and help develop solutions to its problems? Can you think of even one time – just one time – when a member of council proposed something that didn’t seem, first and foremost, designed to get their name in the newspaper?”
O’Neill was silent.
“Of course you can’t, because it’s never happened, because council members like that don’t exist. Every single one of them is a small-time politician who got to where they are by taking care of business and outhustling other small-time politicians. It’s the only thing they ever, ever think about. They don’t care about tax policy; they care when their constituents complain to them about taxes. They don’t care about the flow of traffic in center city; they care about the lack of cheap parking because their constituents talk about that all the time. They don’t care about whether the hall for the orchestra is under-endowed; they care about whether they’ll get enough tickets to satisfy their constituents’ demand for tickets to free concerts in the park featuring washed-up R&B acts that practically need walkers and oxygen to get onto the stage.
“They only run for office once every four years and for ward leader once every two years. The only thing they have to keep score by and tell how they’re doing between elections is their constituent service numbers, and those numbers look worse than they’ve ever been and they all know it’s because of Shaniqua Watson. In almost any other department in city government she would be your biggest strength, but in the streets department, where most of the action is when it comes to constituent services, she’s your biggest political liability.”
“Unbelievable,” O’Neill said.
“I sit with them all the time. Why don’t they talk to me about this?”
“They see you as a policy person, a manager, like me, and not a political person. They talk about it to Larry and Ed all the time, and I know those guys tell the mayor about it. I also know that he laughs about it when they do. But if he doesn’t stop laughing and do something about Shaniqua Watson, he’s not going to be laughing when the budget doesn’t pass and city government grinds to a halt because he no longer has any legal authority to spend money to pay the city’s bills.”
(more next Sunday)