by Terry Gillen
Opinion, Philadelphia Inquirer

Jan. 20, 2015

Early in the Nutter Administration, Joan Markman, the City’s first Chief Integrity Officer, met with several City officials to ask them why they had attended a reception without paying. Someone who was there told me that one of the officials sincerely offered this explanation: “My staff works hard and they need perks.” Markman, a former federal prosecutor, turned her steely gaze onto this person (a gaze that you yourself would not want to see) and spent the next hour explaining to the official that employees of City government get paid and they get benefits, and so, in fact, they are not entitled to “perks”. By the second term of the Nutter Administration, that official was no longer serving in that position.

The reason that Markman had to spend so much of her time doing ethics training with high-level city officials is because Philadelphia has a long history of being “corrupt and contented,” as Lincoln Steffens wrote. In the Administration before Mayor Nutter, more than 15 people had been convicted of criminal charges related to City government. The previous City Treasurer is still sitting in jail for corruption. And the FBI was so certain that the corruption went into the Mayor’s office that they obtained a warrant to put a bug in that office.

One of the hallmarks of the Nutter Administration had been the high ethical standards at all levels of City government. There are many reasons for this. The City has an independent Inspector General who has real power and who has removed nearly 200 City employees who were corrupt. The Chief Integrity Office, a new position located in the Mayor’s Office, has provided oversight to all employees on ethics. A ban on gifts to members of the Executive Branch (a ban later fought by some members of City Council) has made clear that “perks” are not part of the compensation package. New campaign laws that limit how much money people are allowed to donate to candidates means that a single donor can no longer obtain too much power. And the vacant land system, on which Markman spent countless hours, now has a transparent website that should make it harder to do favors for developers once the Land Bank is operational.

We are less than five months from electing a new mayor and all of City Council, and yet no members of City Council or good government groups have put forth a platform of ethics initiatives that would prevent City government from back-sliding into corruption. City Council passed a law to make the Office of Sustainability permanent, but not the Chief Integrity Officer. Last year, both City Council and the Committee of Seventy unsuccessfully pushed a Charter initiative that would allow members of City Council to run for Mayor while retaining their current jobs, yet a bill to make the Inspector General permanent under the Charter has been lagging in committee for a year.

The silence on these issues has been deafening. Indeed, it has become chic in some circles to suggest that the City would be better off if Mayor Nutter were not quite so, well, ethical – an argument that could gain traction only in a city like Philadelphia. No one in New York, for example would suggest that Mayor DiBlasio would have had a more effective start had he allowed a little bit of graft in his first year. But in Philadelphia serious people make these arguments and serous media outlets print them.

In fact just the opposite is true. The previous City administration governed during a real estate boom, yet there was minimal construction during that time. Attempts to get projects built on the Delaware River waterfront became bogged down in pay to play allegations. The truth is that serious developers and investors will build and invest only when they don’t have to pay off some city official. One reason that there is so much construction in Philadelphia today – and we are still coming out of a real estate slump – is that the rules are clear, the process is transparent and the ethical standards are high. For example, the old Penn’s Landing Board was dissolved and new standards were established in Nutter’s first year, and now the Delaware River waterfront is bustling with projects like the Race Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor. Architects and developers from around the world now want to work in Philadelphia because they know that they have a fair shot at making money without a shake down.

We can’t predict who the next Mayor or City Council will be, but we can demand that they keep these reforms in place. There is hope that Philadelphia has moved away from its “corrupt and contented” status, but we need more than hope. We need people to speak out and take action.

Terry Gillen was the former Director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and former Deputy Commerce Director of Philadelphia