Tag Archives: Philadelphia city council

When Free Speech is Inconvenient for Some…

…some will try to limit free speech.

And in this case, “some” is an elected official in Philadelphia.

After a raucous community organization meeting that degenerated into name-calling, Philadelphia city councilman Kenyatta Johnson has a plan to stop such things from happening in the future.

He calls them “standards of conduct.

The Curmudgeon calls it “limiting free speech.”

Councilman Johnson has proposed creating new standards of conduct/limits on free speech for “registered” community organizations. He proposed legislation to do this, although he either knows better than to try writing those standards himself or is too clueless to have any idea how to begin. Instead, he punted responsibility for limiting his constituents’ first amendment rights to the city’s planning commission, which is staffed by people who are experts in urban design, zoning codes, transportation infrastructure, economic development, and other such things but in no way qualified to figure out a way to circumvent the first amendment.

Who is – Vladimir Putin?

The birthplace of the constitution is having second thoughts about the first amendment .

The birthplace of the constitution is having second thoughts about the first amendment.

It’s a terrible idea. And limiting raucous speech is certainly something new for councilman Johnson, who stood silently with the other 16 members of Philadelphia’s city council three years ago while city employees, unhappy with the lack of progress in their contract negotiations with the city, booed Philadelphia’s mayor off the podium when he tried to deliver his annual budget address. No, Johnson had no problem with that kind of raucous speech, never tried to extend to the mayor the courtesy of an opportunity to speak his piece or to urge the president of city council, who presided over the proceedings, to do so but has suddenly seen the light and decided that he’s on a mission to civilize.

You civilize by treating people with respect and talking to them about treating others with the same respect they themselves believe they deserve. You civilize by demonstrating the behavior, by modeling the behavior, as they say these days, that you seek to inspire in others.

You don’t civilize by putting a muzzle on people. It’s worse than unconstitutional; it’s just plain wrong.

Philadelphia City Council Week, Part 4 (of 4): Selling Inside Information?

Some years ago some politicians in Washington found themselves on the receiving end of some serious tsk-tsking when they started holding breakfast fund-raising events at which they advertised providing extra insight into the issues before them in Congress – extra insight on their jobs to people who ponied up large campaign contributions in exchange for their Pop Tarts and Froot Loops. More than one critic pointed out that the people those elected officials represented, not just those with big checkbooks, were entitled to such insight.

The Washington Post ran into a similar problem in 2009 when it promoted events at which, for a fee of $25,000, “sponsors” would meet with members of Congress, administration officials, business leaders, think-tank wonks, and association heads, hosted by Post leaders and reporters. Critics wailed over the obvious ethical lapse and the Post canceled its money-making scheme.

So it became understood that you just don’t do that kind of thing.

But the memo explaining that apparently never reached Philadelphia, where first-term city council member Cherelle Parker invited people to spend $500 or $1000 to sit down with her over Eggos and oatmeal the morning that the mayor officially presented his proposed fiscal year 2017 budget to city council – a budget he had already briefed council members about.

Parker denied that she put up for sale to those with enough cash a sneak peek and her special perspective as a member of council, of course. Instead, she explained that she was trying to start a dialogue – whatever that means. Even in Philadelphia’s city hall, where almost nothing is considered unethical, people were asking “What the hell?”

It’s legal but it’s sleazy and wrong. She should be having this dialogue with her constituents, not with people who can afford to spend $500 or $1000 for Cocoa Krispies and juice boxes.

Parker may be new to Philadelphia’s city council but she’s already proving to be a real achiever. Less than two months into her first term and she’s already demonstrating a questionable grasp of right and wrong.

Philadelphia City Council Week, Part 3 (of 4): More Dubious Hiring Practices

Every time The Curmudgeon thinks he’s done complaining about Philadelphia city council’s hiring practices another example of those dubious practices comes along.

greedy

Wouldn’t it have been rude of me to reject their attempt to thank me for helping them?

Take Christopher Wright, who was sentenced to four years in jail in 2009 for accepting favors from developers he assisted while a member of the staff of a member of Philadelphia’s city council. When a court vacated the sentence based on its own strange interpretation of the law Wright was freed from jail and the district attorney, concerned that the passage of time would make his witnesses ineffective, chose not to re-prosecute the case.

So what happened to Wright?

Another member of Philadelphia’s city council recently hired him as a legislative aide. He will be paid $70,000 a year.

That council member, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, described Wright as an

…extremely experienced legislative aide who uses his deep knowledge of city government to serve all of the citizens of Philadelphia.

What everyone except the councilman who hired Wright is thinking: “And especially to serve himself.”

What could the member of council possibly have been thinking when he made this decision?

An interesting side note to this – interesting, at least, to The Curmudgeon – is that Al Taubenberger, the council member who hired Wright, is a Republican. The Curmudgeon is not pointing this out to suggest that Republicans have any special talent when it comes to incompetence or corruption; to the contrary, he believes political incompetence and corruption are equal opportunity poisons: all parties suffer from them.

No, The Curmudgeon raises this because there are so many contrarians – people even more contrary than The Curmudgeon, if you can believe that – who like to go around telling Philadelphians who are unhappy with their city government that it’s their own fault because they keep electing Democrats to office. There is certainly something to be said for that, but when the Republicans give you people like Taubenberger (who ran for mayor and lost in 2007) and the councilman who hired Tim O’Brien, the subject of yesterday’s story, it seems ridiculous to suggest that voting for candidates from a different party will make things better regardless of who those people are, just so long as they’re from a different party. It doesn’t work that way.

Philadelphia City Council Week, Part 1 (of 4): Nice Work If You Can Get It

In the early 1980s the mayor of Philadelphia declared his town’s city council the worst legislative body in the free world. Thirty-five years later the cast of characters has changed but the council remains the same, populated by hacks and individuals of questionable ethics, ability, and allegiance; that the city’s new mayor comes directly from that council after 20 years without a single noteworthy accomplishment is especially depressing. (And no, this isn’t Taking Care of Business, The Sequel. You’ve had quite enough of that, The Curmudgeon realizes.) Recently there’s been a spate of developments casting fresh aspersions on the Suspect 17, so The Curmudgeon will take the next four days to share the chamber’s latest lowlights – lowlights all appalling in their own way yet somehow also entertaining in an I-don’t-live-or-work-there-so-I-don’t-need-to-be-outraged kind of way.

__________

Wilson Goode, Jr., son of the former mayor, served four terms as an elected member of Philadelphia’s city council. His service didn’t end voluntarily: in a Democratic primary race in which the top five vote-getters won the opportunity to compete in the general election, Goode finished seventh.

In other words, the voters drummed him out of office.

But that didn’t mean Goode’s days on the public payroll are over: the president of Philadelphia’s city council created a new position on his staff, that of senior policy adviser to the president, and hired Goode to fill it.

goode

Getting by with a little help from his friends.

At a salary of $135,000 a year.

Which is even more than the $129,373 paid to elected members of Philadelphia’s city council.

After Philadelphia’s voters rejected Goode’s continued participation in the city’s government.

And politicians wonder why so much of the public holds them in such contempt.

Not Exactly a Profile in Courage

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia’s mayor presented his proposed budget to the city council. That budget calls for a nine percent increase in the city’s property tax, most of the proceeds of which would go to support the city’s financially beleaguered and chronically underfunded public school system. (And just so you know, Philadelphia’s property taxes are extremely low because the city gets a lot of its revenue from a wage tax. Owning a home in Philadelphia is a great deal, especially for retirees. Once The Curmudgeon retires he’s definitely moving back.)

Anyhow…

The proposal of the budget signals the start of weeks of budget hearings as the city council goes through the budget and questions the commissioners of various city departments and the heads of various city agencies about what they’ve done with the money they’ve been given in the past and how they propose using the money they’re now seeking. Budget hearings can be quite contentious, especially with television cameras on and council members eager to prove to their constituents that they are bringing home the bacon on their behalf.

Although the budget hearings start shortly after the budget is proposed, the city council hasn’t scheduled a hearing to discuss the proposed property tax increase until late May.

Why wait so long?

Because on May 19 there will be a primary election for all seventeen seats on Philadelphia’s city council and fifteen of those seats are being sought by the people who currently occupy them.

And the last thing council members want to do is be seen having an honest discussion about the need for a tax increase days or weeks before the election. They’d much rather sweep that issue under the rug and put off that discussion because, after all, they consider getting re-elected to be much more important than doing the job for which they were elected.

But that’s Philadelphia’s city council: never unwilling to avoid addressing the important issues.

Clueless Politicians

James Kenney has been a member of Philadelphia’s city council for twenty-three years. As elected officials go, he doesn’t have much to show for his efforts, but in a city like Philadelphia, that’s not much of a surprise – not because he’s no good, and not because Philadelphia politicians are no good, but because Philadelphia has what’s known as a strong mayor/weak council form of government, the council has relatively little power, and what little power it does have is almost entirely exercised by the council’s president.

For the most part, that leaves council members with the bully pulpit and little else, and Kenney has probably made more of that bully pulpit than most of his council colleagues. He also has made a fool of himself a number of times, including twice in a manner that drew The Curmudgeon’s attention: first, when he publicly admitted that he wasn’t bright enough to tweet, and second, after he learned how to tweet, making the kind of idiotic comments via Twitter about the anatomy and football-rooting allegiance of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that demonstrate that it’s probably a good thing that members of Philadelphia’s city council aren’t permitted to play with any sharp legislative objects. It also speaks volumes about Kenney that his primary policy interest these days is the decriminalization of marijuana, which strongly suggests that his well of ideas about how to help a troubled city ran dry a long time ago.

Whenever there’s about to be a vacancy in Philadelphia’s mayor’s office – the city has a two-term limit – Kenney’s name typically comes up as a possible candidate. It always comes up in the same, unspoken context: that the only way Kenney, who has no meaningful following, could possibly win the Democratic nomination for mayor is if he is the only serious white candidate in a field with several quality black candidates and the black candidates split the vote, enabling Kenney to squeak by and win. People forget this, but back in 1991, Ed Rendell was considered a political has-been and won his election under those very conditions and went on to serve two very successful terms as mayor, two as governor, and briefly as the national chairman of the Democratic Party, so stranger things have happened.

Kenney rose to power under the tutelage of Vince Fumo, a former Philadelphia political powerhouse. He was a Fumo protégé, as have been many other elected officials in Philadelphia in the past thirty years. Fumo’s no longer much of a powerhouse after spending more than four years in jail after being convicted of each and every one of the 137 federal counts of fraud, obstruction of justice, and filing false tax returns with which he was charged. Among other things, he was convicted of stealing more than $4 million from the state senate, a museum, and a Philadelphia neighborhood group in the state senate district he represented.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently interviewed Kenney, the Fumo protégé, about his political future, including whether he was considering running for mayor or another term on city council. Included in the interview was this exchange between the reporter and Kenney:

Q: You got your political start with Vince Fumo. What did you learn from that experience good and bad?

A: Good is that he was smart, and he had very smart people around him . . . in Harrisburg, appropriations staff, they are a bright group of people and he fostered their abilities to blossom and he wasn’t afraid to have smart people around him. [Bad is] just don’t lose sight that you are a public official and everything you do is scrutinized.

Notice that Kenney didn’t say you shouldn’t steal public money, as Fumo did.

He didn’t say you shouldn’t use state facilities and state property and state employees for private personal and political purposes, as Fumo did.

He didn’t say you shouldn’t obstruct justice, as Fumo did.

He didn’t say you shouldn’t be a political bully, as Fumo was.

No, he said you shouldn’t “…lose sight that you are a public official and everything you do is scrutinized.”

In other words, what he didn’t say was “You shouldn’t do all the bad and illegal things my mentor did.” Instead, he said “You have to remember other people are watching, so by all means, don’t get caught.”

You have to wonder how a politician – how anyone, really – could be so completely and utterly clueless to make such a statement. It’s amazing in two respects: first, that he said something as despicable as he did – “be careful, people are watching”; and second, that he lacked the common sense, even if he believed such a thing, to say it aloud, and to a reporter.

What incredibly poor judgment on both counts. A guy like that who doesn’t know right from wrong, who thinks “right” means not getting caught, is the last thing anyone needs in an elected official.

And They Call It…Puppy Love?

Twice within the last ten days, two members of Philadelphia’s city council have spoken out about a vital constituent group.

Dogs.

Yes, dogs.

In the first case, a member who has served on the council for twenty-two years and has virtually nothing to show for his time on the public payroll – nothing, that is, aside from frequent parenthetical references in newspapers to his being a protégé of a politician who just got out of jail after serving time for public corruption  – spoke out about how the salt compound the city uses to help melt snow damages the paws of dogs.  He’s unhappy, and he wants something done about it.  (The councilman also has earned dishonorable mention on this site in the past as well.  Find it here.)

dogA few days later, a relative newcomer to the Philadelphia council stepped up to his bully pulpit to express concern about dog owners who leave their pets outdoors on very cold winter nights.  He, too, is unhappy and wants something done about it.

While not minimizing the importance of these matters in any way – well, actually, yes, he is minimizing the importance of these matters – The Curmudgeon finds it odd, and disappointing, that in a city where somewhere around a quarter of the population is probably ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-fed, and probably just plain ill, two courageous members of the city council have stepped forward to speak up not for those constituents, not for the ill-housed, the ill-clad, the ill-fed, and the just plain ill, but for their pets.

Leaves you wondering who the real dogs are.

Chick-fil-A and Convenient Protesting

When The Curmudgeon was a teenager there was a “women’s center” in his part of town that was little more than an abortion clinic.  This women’s center went about its business without interruption or fuss Mondays through Fridays, but on Saturdays, a polite, well-dressed group of about twenty people would show up with protest signs to express their displeasure over the center’s activities.

It was all very civilized.  As far as The Curmudgeon could tell, the protesters never raised a great big fuss or harassed the center’s patients, and  women who wanted abortions came to understand that they shouldn’t visit the facility on a Saturday.  The protesters were neither loud nor obnoxious, didn’t curse people, didn’t try to flag down passing cars, didn’t throw blood on the health care professionals who worked in the building.

Just in case there were any problems, though, the Philadelphia police department’s civil affairs unit always sent a van on Saturdays to monitor the situation.  The police would park the van along the curb of a nearby building, just out of sight of the clinic and its protesters.  Around six officers would stand around or sit on the curb, sipping coffee or soft drinks, while one among them would separate from the group and peer discreetly around the edge of the building so he could keep an eye out for any activity that might require intervention.

The Curmudgeon always thought this was a very strange approach to protesting.  Here you had people who believed very deeply that something going on inside the women’s center was profoundly wrong, that it violated their moral and religious beliefs, yet they could only muster the will to protest about it when it was convenient for them:  on Saturday, their day off from work.  The Curmudgeon recalls finding it awfully hard to respect people who were only willing to stand up for their beliefs when it fit into their schedule.

This situation came to mind recently because of the Chick-fil-A controversy that started when Dan Cathy, the company’s president, stated publicly that he opposes gay marriage.  The man’s entitled to his views, of course, just as people are entitled to choose not to patronize his business as a way of expressing their displeasure with those views.  Chick-fil-A is owned by a deeply religious man, and The Curmudgeon has always respected that man’s willingness to put his money where his mouth is by closing his stores on Sundays.  Truett Cathy, the company’s founder and owner, could make a lot more money by selling his food on Sundays, but he chooses not to out of respect for his sabbath.

Of course, every big mouth and his brother (and now, including The Curmudgeon) has seemingly felt compelled to put in his two cents’ worth about this little tempest in a teapot, and among those big mouths is Jim Kenney, a member of Philadelphia’s city council.  Mr. Kenney, readers may recall, was taken to task in this space earlier this year after it was revealed that he had hired a consultant to administer his Twitter account because he admitted he was not intelligent enough to learn how to tweet for himself.  The Curmudgeon respectfully – well, let’s be honest here, not-so-respectfully – suggested that a man not intelligent enough to tweet might not be well-suited to participate in the formulation of public policy for a city of 1.5 million people.

In a letter to Mr. Cathy, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kenney wrote, “So please – take a hike and take your intolerance with you.  There is no place for this type of hate in our great City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.”  The Inquirer also reported that Kenney will introduce a resolution at the next Philadelphia city council meeting condemning both the man and his company.

Of course, as any real Philadelphian knows, and as The Curmudgeon saw coming a mile away even before he read it in the paper, Mr. Kenney will have to cool his heels for a good long time because that next council meeting won’t be anytime soon.  You see, Philadelphia’s city council doesn’t work during the summer.  Like a bunch of third-graders, its members take a summer vacation so they can play stickball, go to the beach, and watch lots of television.  By the time the next council meeting takes place, on September 13, the controversy will have died down and people will have moved on to other, presumably more important matters than the political views of a fried chicken salesman.  Even if the council passes the resolution, no one will care anymore and the members who vote for it will look like they are wasting time on the public’s dime.

So it looks as if, just like the anti-abortion protesters of The Curmudgeon’s youth, timely action on a matter in which he supposedly believes deeply is just not convenient for Mr. Kenney.  Instead, he’ll get back to us when it becomes more convenient, in about six weeks.

If anybody still cares about it by then.

Mini-Rumination: Too Dumb for Public Office?

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that a member of Philadelphia’s city council is paying a consultant $29,000 a year to tweet for him.  When asked why he needs someone to tweet for him, nit-twit councilman James Kenney explained, “I, at 53 years old, do not have that facility.”

The initial reaction has been outrage that an elected official is paying this consultant with public money.  The consensus seems to be that such services would more appropriately be paid from the councilman’s campaign funds.

But aren’t critics overlooking a broader issue?  Shouldn’t someone who apparently isn’t smart enough to learn how to tweet be considered too stupid to hold elected office?

She’ll Say a Little Prayer for You

In the early 1980s, Philadelphia’s mayor described his city’s council as “the worst legislative body in the free world.”  Aside from his unfortunate omission of legislative bodies in the not-so-free world, he was onto something:  wisdom, intelligence, and talent have never been in great supply on Philadelphia’s city council.  It was a weak council 30 years ago and it’s a weak council today.

It’s also a familiar – and familial – council.  The son of the mayor who made that proclamation now serves on the council, as does the son of that mayor’s predecessor and the son of that same mayor’s successor.  The president of the council, retiring at the end of the year, inherited her council seat from her father the year The Curmudgeon graduated from high school.

Who said primogeniture is dead?

But the relationships don’t end there.  Also on the current council is a member who inherited her position from her husband when he chose to share his family’s special brand of mediocrity (and a really bad toupee) with the United States Congress.  While not especially highly regarded, Jannie Blackwell is not generally considered the typical lightweight Philadelphians elect to represent them in city hall.  Just a few weeks ago, her constituents gave her 89.99 percent of the votes in her bid for a sixth term in office.  Clearly, the councilwoman is doing something right.

Her recent actions, however, suggest that perhaps she wants to fit in better with some of the nonentities who surround her.

Earlier this week, Ms. Blackwell, in her capacity as chairwoman of the council’s education committee, held a hearing on prayer in public schools.

Yes, prayer in public schools.

Apparently, she’s fer it.

“Prayer can promote more virtuous living and may have a positive impact on student behavior in schools,” Blackwell told the gathered, according to a published report.

Aside from being a profoundly bad idea, the councilwoman apparently hasn’t heard that the Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer in public schools oh, nearly sixty years ago.

Some of the people who testified at the hearing pointed out to her that prayer in Philadelphia’s public schools might not be such a good idea.

“Council chambers and teachers’ desks should not serve as pulpits for religious doctrine,” suggested one witness.  “Are the parents going to decide, or are the teachers, the principal, or City Council, what prayers should be offered?” another asked, hopelessly lost in a grammatical tangle.

And just to show that in Philadelphia they grow their mayoral candidates as dumb as they grow their council members, the candidate defeated overwhelmingly (receiving just 21.63 percent of the votes) in the mayoral election just three weeks ago tossed in her own two cents’ worth – allowing for inflation.

“For years, we have in the school calendar, allowed for breaks for the Christian holidays, as well as the Jewish holidays.  It was part of the school calendar, so how can we say the state and the church are separate?”

Got that?

Although councilwoman Blackwell was interested enough in this issue to invoke her authority as a committee chairwoman to hold a hearing, it appears she hasn’t thought this issue through.  Her committee is not considering legislation to restore prayer to Philadelphia’s public schools and the council as a whole is not considering a bill to restore prayer to Philadelphia’s public schools.  Even if it was, and even if the city’s school district wasn’t controlled by a state takeover board and not Philadelphia’s city council, the current council session ends in a few weeks and the chairwoman hasn’t scheduled another hearing on the issue.

So why did she do it?  Why hold this hearing?

Because she can?  Because she can get her name in the newspaper?  Because she was doing someone a favor?  Because it makes her feel important?

Or maybe because she feels the need to help ensure that Philadelphia’s city council continues to live up to its reputation as the worst legislative body in the free world?

If that’s her intention, let us borrow from a declaration once made by then-President George W. Bush

Mission Accomplished.