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.)
At the request of Mayor Norbert, Jon Ravelsky arranged a meeting at his law firm’s office between the mayor and council’s three leaders: president Harold Miller, budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella, and eighty-two-year-old Leonard Goldberg, a venerable figure who was now serving his tenth term on council. Norbert originally proposed inviting the group to his office or even his home, but Ravelsky counseled that meeting on neutral ground might be more effective.
Norbert knew that council was obsessed with being respected – an obsession driven by the utter disdain with which most Philadelphians viewed the legislative branch of their city’s government. Even the most ill-informed Philadelphians could matter-of-factly cite numerous reasons for their low regard for council: the numerous fistfights in which council members had engaged – on the floor of council, during official meetings – over the years; the thousands of dollars that several of them owed to the city-owned gas utility; the many relatives they put on their staffs; the contracts they accepted to lobby public agencies that relied in part on council for their funding; the free clothes and furniture they received, the home repairs performed for them, and the discounts they received on automobiles from local companies seeking their favor; the junkets they took to Las Vegas for conventions for local elected officials at which they were photographed at casino slot machines at the same time that they claimed to be attending workshops; and much more. The one reason that Philadelphians cited most frequently, however, was council’s impressive record of having at least one of its members convicted of political corruption in every four-year term that councils had served since the late 1950s. So accustomed were Philadelphians to the idea that the people they elected to council would break the law that throughout the city, lobbyists participated in high-stakes office betting pools in which they tried to pick the latest term’s most-likely-to-be-indicted member.
Mindful of the inferiority complex inspired by council’s actual inferiority, Norbert made a point of arriving very early to ensure that the meeting did not get off on the wrong foot with council members agitated because he had kept them waiting. When Ravelsky ushered the council delegation into his conference room, Norbert greeted them and stepped to a side table where refreshments were arranged and offered to serve the newest arrivals.
After a very brief period of small talk – idle conversation was awkward and hardly seemed worth the effort because Miller had to work hard to be civil to Norbert and Goldberg refused even to try – the four public officials got down to business.
“We need a budget,” Norbert said gently. “In two weeks the city will lose its authority to spend money. When that happens, not only will we not be able to pay our employees, but we also won’t be able to pay our bills and then our suppliers and contractors will threaten to cut us off. We also run the risk of defaulting on our bonds. I don’t think we’re that far apart, and I’m hoping we can put our heads together – just us, no staff – identify the issues that are standing between us and an approved budget, and either work them out now or lay a foundation for working them out in the next few days.”
Council president Miller agreed and immediately presented the first issue: capital projects. According to an analysis by council’s staff, he said, thirty city capital projects were more than two years behind schedule, and twenty-four of those thirty projects had no timetable for work even to begin.
Norbert was surprised: endless delays on capital projects had long been a problem in Philadelphia, but he also knew that his staff had addressed and solved it within thirty days of his taking office. Further, this was the first time council had raised this matter – and now, at the very start of a meeting at which he felt he needed to be as respectful and deferential as possible, he had to tell council leaders that they were mistaken about these projects – and that they were mistaken because they had not bothered to read key city reports that documented the resolution of this problem.
“Actually,” he explained, “my understanding is that the city usually runs fifty to sixty projects at least two years behind. We’re doing a pretty good job: we’ve cut that number in half in less than six months. According to the capital projects office, every single project, even the ones that are still behind, now has a schedule for when design will be finished, for bidding, for project start, and for project completion. We’ll be completely caught up by the end of the next fiscal year for the first time in more than fifty years. The information you’re working with is outdated. I wish you would’ve raised this sooner, because we would have had an opportunity to set your minds at ease about this.”
“You’ve kept this information to yourselves, you spring it on us now for the first time, and we’re supposed to believe you?” Councilman Goldberg asked.
Norbert was momentarily taken aback by the directness – and the inaccuracy – of the councilman’s challenge.
“Mr. Goldberg, we didn’t go public with this in a big way because even though we now have this plan for catching up completely, we thought it would be ungracious to brag publicly about cleaning up another administration’s mess. But we haven’t been hiding it, either. It’s all spelled out in the city’s capital plan, and I know you’ve all received copies of that plan. You have my word that we’ve now got this totally under control, and while I realize I’ve only been in office for a few months, I think I have a pretty good record of living up to my word.”
“Your word means nothing to me,” Goldberg spat back at Norbert.
“I think what Leonard is saying,” Councilwoman Amordella interjected, “is that the projects that are behind schedule have been promised for years and our constituents have been expecting them for a long time. We keep going back and asking them to be patient, but they’re losing patience. We don’t want to go back to them empty-handed again. We need a way to pacify them until the projects get started.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Norbert replied. “What do you have in mind? I’d be glad to join you when you talk to your constituents about these projects and help explain. If you want to set up some kind of community meetings or something, tell me when and where and I’ll be there.”
“We’ve employed a different approach in the past,” Amordella explained. “When the big projects are delayed, we try to do some little things to tide our constituents over.
“You may not have noticed,” Amordella continued, “but the current year’s budget, like its seven predecessors, has seventeen miscellaneous appropriations of $400,000 in the community development budget for unspecified purposes.”
“I noticed that, actually,” Norbert replied. “When we couldn’t figure out what they were for we eliminated them, saving $6.8 million in the process.”
“What do you mean ‘I noticed that’?” Miller asked.
“When I was reading the budget,” Norbert replied.
“You read the budget?”
“Why would you do that?” the council president asked, an incredulous look on his face.
“A chief executive should always know where the money’s coming from and how it’s being spent,” Norbert replied.
The three council members looked at one another in astonishment; Goldberg smirked.
“Be that as it may,” Amordella resumed, “we’d like those appropriations restored.”
“But what are they for?” Norbert asked. He was annoyed; yet again, this was the first he had heard of this matter – another council surprise.
“They’re for council’s discretionary projects,” Miller explained.
Norbert paused for a moment.
“Of course,” he finally said, “seventeen appropriations, seventeen members of council. They were sprinkled throughout the community development budget, but I should have made the connection.”
“If you had any local or party people in your budget office,” Goldberg said, seizing the opportunity to raise another sore subject, “you would have known.”
“So, the funds?” Amordella asked.
Norbert was taken aback; they were asking for a $400,000 slush fund for each member of council.
“That’s $6.8 million. We’d need to find offsets,” Norbert said.
“Find them,” Goldberg snapped.
“$6 million will do,” Miller interjected. “I never understood why we gave any of this money to the Republicans on council in the first place.”
“To the victors go the spoils,” Goldberg added.
“I’ll get back to you on that, okay?” Norbert asked.
“Of course,” Miller said, adding “but let’s not take too long. As you said, we need a budget.”
“Forty-eight hours,” Norbert promised.
“Excellent,” Miller said, “So now let’s talk about the parking authority, the housing authority, and the school district.”
“What about them?” Norbert asked. None of these entities were formally part of city government or included in the city budget and the mayor did not run or even oversee them. Technically, the two authorities were actually state agencies, not city offices.
“We want 100 jobs at each,” Miller declared.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re not civil service and we need jobs to reward our people.”
“I don’t run the authorities or the school district and that’s Denny McDougal’s area,” Norbert explained, referring to the well-known division of responsibilities he had engineered between himself and the party’s chairman.
“We’re making it your area,” Miller said.
“They’re all overstaffed right now,” Norbert said. “Even though I don’t run them, I’ve been leaning on all three to give me plans for how they’ll reduce their staffing by at least ten percent in the next eighteen months. We need to cut jobs in those organizations, not increase them.”
“Unacceptable,” Goldberg practically shouted. “You can’t just throw people out of work.”
“That’s why I gave them eighteen months,” Norbert said. “They should be able to achieve most if not all of their cuts by attrition.”
“And if they don’t?” Goldberg asked.
“Minimal lay-offs – last hired, first fired, the only fair way.”
“We think there’s a better way,” Miller said.
“What’s that?” Norbert asked.
“Fire everyone whose employment was sponsored by Michael Ianucci and everyone whose employment was sponsored by Republicans,” Miller explained.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“To the victors go the spoils,” repeated Goldberg.
“That’s correct,” Miller added. “You fire them, you let the attrition thing run its course, and then you give us at least 100 jobs at each.”
“What happened to ‘You can’t throw people out of work?’”
“We were talking about people we actually care about,” Miller replied. “But we don’t care about any of the people I just mentioned.”
“We can’t just do that. We’ll get sued,” Norbert objected. “The days when you can fire patronage employees just because their patrons lost their power are long gone.”
“We own the judges,” Miller said. “We paid good money for them, in fact.”
“You don’t own federal judges. These kinds of suits are now considered civil rights cases and go to federal court,” Norbert replied.
“You’re a lawyer now?” Goldberg asked.
“You don’t need to be a lawyer to know this. It’s all over the public sector trade journals.”
“The what?” Amordella asked.
“The journals – you know, Governing, Nation’s Cities Weekly, the National Civic Review – the magazines about issues in local government that we all read.”
The three council members just looked at him for a moment – and then looked at one another.
“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Miller said, making clear that members of Philadelphia’s city council were not, in fact, among those who read professional journals about their field of endeavor.
“Take my word for it,” Norbert said.
“We’ll do no such thing,” Goldberg replied.
“Fine. I’ll talk to Cisco and get a formal opinion from the city’s law department.”
“Quickly,” Miller said.
“Forty-eight hours,” Norbert again promised.
“Our third issue,” Amordella said, changing the subject, “is the union contracts. You need to increase the offers. They’re unacceptably low.”
“Mary, you know the numbers as well as…”
“You will address the councilwoman with respect,” Goldberg bellowed. “How dare you disrespect her like that.”
“It’s okay, Lenny, the mayor didn’t mean anything by it,” Amordella interjected. “We’ve been friends for years: I call him Jim and he calls me Mary.”
“It is not okay, Mary. This council will not be disrespected in this manner.”
“My apologies, councilwoman.”
“Really, Jim, it’s not necessary. But the raises are. You need to do better.”
“You’ve seen the numbers, councilwoman. There’s no more money. Even assuming we get full restoration from the state, there’s still no more money.”
“There’s no current money, you mean,” council president Miller corrected him.
“The only way to get more money would be to raise taxes,” Norbert said.
“If that’s the only way,” Miller replied.
“You’re kidding, right?” Norbert asked.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“Do you think your constituents will be agreeable to paying more taxes so we can give city employees bigger raises than we’ve already offered?”
“Spoken like a true capitalist,” Goldberg said. “You’ve always taken grotesque advantage of labor, young man. You built your empire on the backs of the working man and now that you’re pursuing the new, fashionable gentleman’s hobby of running a city, you’re continuing to do it just for sport.”
Prior to his election to council – and then on a part-time basis through his first three terms in office – Goldberg had worked as a union organizer. In his many years of work in that capacity, he managed the extraordinary record of never succeeding – not even once – in persuading any workers anywhere to join forces and unionize.
“The facts suggest otherwise, actually,” Norbert responded. “My company has had numerous union votes yet neither a single defeat nor a single ruling rendered against us by the National Labor Relations Board. You know our secret, Lenny?”
Norbert knew he had just baited Goldberg – something he had specifically tried not to do. The temptation, however, had proven too powerful, and now, he watched Goldberg turn very red in the face.
“I treat my employees well. I pay them fairly and I treat them with respect.”
Councilwoman Amordella interrupted, fearing that Goldberg’s anger and reddened face could cause the octogenarian to have a stroke.
“Seriously, Jim, we need to treat our city workers better, even if it means raising taxes.”
“I ask you again,” Norbert said. “Do you think your constituents want to pay higher taxes to give raises to people who already have better jobs than they do?”
“We don’t care,” Miller interjected.
“Excuse me?” the mayor asked.
“You heard me. Our job is to make city policy and make the city work, not to do what our constituents want. If we consulted them on every little matter that came before us we’d never get anything done, now would we?”
Norbert could not quite believe what he was hearing.
“And you don’t think raising taxes would hurt you the next time you’re up for re-election?”
“Now you’re the one who has to be kidding,” Miller replied. “I’m in my fourth term, Mary’s in her fifth, and Lenny’s in his tenth. We raise taxes at least once every term, and occasionally twice. It’s never hurt us before.”
“But times are changing,” Norbert said. “All across the country, legislators who vote for taxes are being voted out of office. You’re not worried at all about that?”
“May I ask why not?”
“Because our constituents are fundamentally stupid, that’s why,” Miller explained. “We serve four-year terms. If we raise taxes during the first two years of those terms, they’ve forgotten by the time we run for re-election.”
“And your opponents won’t be all-too happy to remind them?”
“The only people more clueless than our constituents are the Republicans in this town,” she said. “They couldn’t find a decent candidate if their lives depended on it, and even if they accidentally stumbled onto one, they wouldn’t have a clue as to how to run a half-decent campaign. It’s been years since anyone who’s served more than one term on council has lost a bid for re-election, Jim. Our constituents don’t follow what’s going on and don’t read the newspapers. They step into the voting booth and vote for the names they recognize, and those are our names. Last fall I got ninety-two percent of the vote in my race. Do you think I need to worry? We’re not in any way responsive to them on matters like this because as long as we continue to take care of their business, they continue to vote for us. We can raise taxes, make bad decisions, even break the law and they still support us, so if we need to raise taxes to keep the city workforce happy and willing to vote for us, we raise taxes. That’s all there is to it.”
After a few more minutes of discussion, the three council members concluded that those were the major issues they needed the mayor to address, and the four participants agreed that the mayor would contact council president Miller within two days with his response to those concerns. The next move clearly was Norbert’s.
So the meeting ended. Goldberg quickly and abruptly departed without so much as acknowledging the mayor, showing surprising agility for a man in his ninth decade. Amordella and Miller shook the mayor’s hand at the door and were about to leave when Miller asked Amordella to go on without him because he wanted to have a brief word alone with the mayor.
When Amordella departed, Miller spoke.
“It’s a lot, Mr. Mayor. The community development money, the jobs, the taxes for the pay raises.”
“Yes, it is,” Norbert agreed.
“And it may or may not be possible.”
“At least you acknowledge it,” he said.
“Of course I do. We all do – even Lenny.”
“He’s quite a character.”
“The last angry man,” the council president said, laughing.
“But I can make this a whole lot easier for you,” Miller continued. “I can make it incredibly simple. You can make those three problems go away without your having to lift a finger and get your budget at our next meeting on Thursday.”
“Yes. We can do without the discretionary funds and the jobs and the city workers can fend for themselves or accept your perfectly reasonable contract offer. We can do without any of it.”
“It’s easy,” Miller said. “Give us Shaniqua Watson and you can have your way on everything else.”
With those words, Miller shook Norbert’s hand and departed.
(more next Sunday)