Writer: Andy Sharpe
Tuesday, March 06, 2012
Germantown is a neighborhood that is characterized by the remnants of its past colliding with the challenges of its present. It is definitely one of the most famous historic sections of Philly, right behind Old City in the eyes of many. Yet, this storied history comes with the backdrop of crime, poverty, trash, and neighborhood division on many blocks. This neighborhood division has been manifested by the corrupt Germantown Settlement, which was a social service and community development agency that ran out of money, and a tiff over retail development on Chelten Avenue.
It’s why Germantown residents are even more motivated to redevelop and cultivate a sense of community. In fact, the Germantown United CDC (GUCDC) was formed toward the end of last year to reinstate transparency to the neighborhood. The CDC is currently in the process of selecting its Board, and serves the racially, economically, and religiously diverse area from Chew Ave. to the north, Wissahickon Ave. to the south, Wayne Junction Station to the east, and Johnson St. to the west.
John Churchville, the president of GUCDC, is passionate about making a difference. “I’d have to say that our first priority is to establish our trustworthiness as an organization in Germantown,” says a motivated Churchville. He says this means reaching out to local businesses, residents, civic associations, and developers. The president also detects a hardy sense of optimism among those who are interested in serving on GUCDC’s Board.
Once GUCDC becomes more entrenched in the neighborhood, one of its priorities will be re-utilizing the historic Germantown Town Hall. Churchville says that the re-use of Town Hall will be a personal commitment of his. He wants to take advantage of the Civil War-era building’s location across from Germantown High School by turning it into a building of learning that will feature post-secondary level science, technology, and math and high-school level “green entrepreneur” training. The building is up for sale by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC).
Another GUCDC priority will be to clean up the Chelten and Germantown Ave. business corridors. The corridors form perpendicular Main Streets feature a diverse selection of small businesses, but are pockmarked by trash and other quality-of-life problems. The CDC has already held clean-ups along Chelten, and has proven its intimate concern with the avenue since its days speaking out against the new shopping center at Chelten and Pulaski.
It’s not hard to guess that GUCDC sees Germantown’s history playing a vital role in the area’s future. Barbara Hogue, the executive director at Historic Germantown, is hoping to assist in this effort. She says her organization has submitted a grant application to the Pew Charitable Trust for “the interpretation of the enduring search for freedom in Germantown.” If they receive the grant, Hogue foresees Historic Germantown working setting up pop-up exhibits at vacant storefronts and organizing lectures at local coffee shops in an event commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
GUCDC held a forum last week to examine CDC best practices in Philadelphia and New York and strategize ways to make a community like Germantown more livable. The forum was keynoted by Colvin Grannum, president of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. Other speakers were Econsult economist Steve Mullin, Rick Sauer with the Philadelphia Association of Economic Development Corporations, Historic Germantown’s Hogue, Sandy Salzman at New Kensington CDC, and Andy Frishkoff with Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
Writer: Andy Sharpe
Sources: John Churchville, Germantown United CDC and Barbara Hogue, Historic Germantown
Photo courtesy of Dana Scherer
Come join us to hear and engage with a panel of experts on best practices for operating a successful Community Development Corporation (CDC). After the demise of Germantown Settlement, it’s time for a new beginning!
This is the chance for us to truly understand what a productive and people-oriented
CDC is and how it functions to create a sustainable community.
The combination of diversity, history and community are all the essential elements
that make Germantown one of the best neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
Germantown United’s goal is to see that our commercial corridor is developed so
that it attracts shoppers, history buffs, art & music lovers and for
people who enjoy good food to come to our community.
PANEL OF EXPERTS
RiCK SAUER, executive Director, philadelphia association CDC
STEVE MULLIN, Senior vice president & principal, econsult
ANDY FRISHKOFF, executive Director, local initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)
BARBARA HOGUE, executive Director,Historic Germantown •
SANDY SALTZMAN, executive Director, new Kensington CDC (NKCDC)
SPECIAL GUESTS INCLUDE
Councilwoman CINDY BASS • State Representative ROSITA YOUNGBLOOD • The Philadelphia Department of Commerce • Philadelphia City Planning Commission
Weds February 29, 2012 | 7-9:30pm
Northwestern Human Services, 5429 Germantown Avenue.
Please RSvP by February 15th: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
With food prices rising and incomes going nowhere, dollar stores are thriving, luring squeezed customers — many from the middle class — with discount ramen noodles, frozen casseroles and other packaged food. But health advocates say cheap food comes at a high cost and some communities are battling to keep the stores from proliferating.
Profits were up at national chains that include Family Dollar and Dollar General in 2011. As Family Dollar reported in its earnings call on Friday, profit jumped 11 percent to $134.9 million in the most recent quarter from the year earlier — in part thanks to increased sales of “consumables,” the food and household products traditionally sold by grocers.These items now make up 70 percent of the company’s sales, up from 61 percent five years ago.
This year, Family Dollar plans to expand its food selection, as well as open 450 to 500 new stores, according to executives. Dollar General, the largest national dollar chain, also plans to open 625 new stores in 2012, the company announced last week.
Dollar stores have benefited from an overall surge in food prices by attracting more shoppers, even as margins shrink. In 2011, the Consumer Price Index for take-home groceries rose 4.25 percent to 4.75 percent from the year before, as forecast by the Department of Agriculture. Food price inflation is likely to continue into 2012. Meanwhile, American wages have risen sluggishly over the past decade, stagnating prior to the recession.
Dollar stores see opportunity in the dismal economy. Matthews, N.C.-based Family Dollar plans to add 300 new food items in 2012, including offerings from Kraft, Nature Valley and General Mills, according to communication director Josh Braverman. Except for milk and eggs — staple foods required to qualify for food stamp programs — all of its foods are packaged, processed, or frozen.
“Our core customer is still very stressed,” Family Dollar chief executive Howard Levine said on the company’s earnings call on Friday with analysts and investors. “When you’re faced with [the question of] what am I going to have for dinner versus buying a new shirt, our customers pretty quickly figure out what’s most important.”
The company has recently seen more middle-class families branching into discount shopping, said Mike Bloom, Family Dollar’s president and chief operating officer. While the typical customer has a family income of $40,000 or less, “a lot of growth is coming from the middle-income family in the $40,000 to 70,000 range,” Bloom said.
“Everyone is trying to stretch dollars even further,” Bloom said.
Packaged foods are not unhealthy if part of a well-rounded diet. Yet many recent dollar store openings have been in areas devoid of full-service markets — so called “food deserts,” according to Mari Gallagher, a health policy researcher, consultant, and adjunct professor at Northeastern’s Institute on Urban Health Research.
In food deserts, which are almost always low-income neighborhoods, fast-food and convenience stores abound. In Chicago, Detroit and Birmingham, Ala., among other places, Gallagher’s research linked diet-related deaths with the proximity to non-traditional or “fringe” food sources that include fast-food outlets, dollar stores and convenience stores.
In Hamilton County, Ohio, for example, Gallagher and her team found that people who live near dollar stores had an increased chance of diet-related illnesses like cancer and diabetes, after controlling for race, gender, income and age.
“As of now, [the correlation between dollar stores and death] is statistically significant, but just barely there,” Gallagher said. “But considering that dollar stores are just entering the market in great force, we’re concerned that relationship is going to worsen.”
Some communities, concerned about health risks as well as economic factors, have begun to fight the spread of dollar stores. The (ironically-named) Mt. Healthy, Ohio, Joshua Tree, Calif., Quailwood, Ariz., Waterbury, Vt., and Taos, N.M., were among the places where residents and community groups opposed new dollar stores in 2011.
In Philadelphia’s historic Germantown section, for example, a zoning law was passed as early as 2008 prohibiting new dollar store openings in a historic district already overrun by the retailers. Last spring, controversy erupted over a proposed Dollar Tree, which developers described as a “grocery store” on the zoning application to comply with the ordinance.
When the community found out, “people were outraged,” said Bill Thomas, a Germantown resident and chief of staff for state Rep. Rosita Youngblood, a Democrat who opposed the development.
“People picketed the location of the development from April to December,” Thomas said. “It was another instance of a developer assuming a community isn’t worthy or doesn’t want anything more in-depth than unhealthy, prepackaged, sodium-infused food.”
Dollar Tree did not respond to a request for comment.
PRICE OF CHEAP
“In this tough economy I don’t care what class or what wealth you are,” said Pat Burns, the developer of the Germantown Dollar Tree. “You have people who are looking to save money. [Dollar Tree] is a great fit for any shopping center.”
While the zoning board ruled that Dollar Tree was not a grocery store, the project was nevertheless given the green light in December by City Council. Dollar Tree will open in March, the 13th dollar store in the neighborhood, according to Thomas.
Dollar store sales figures make it hard to argue against Burns’ point that people of all economic backgrounds are looking for deals. Even in Brooklyn, N.Y. — by no means a food desert — dollar stores are proliferating.
“Four dollar stores have opened in this neighborhood in the past year. It’s the cheapest option around,” said Michael Waddy, 43, of Brooklyn, on a recent trip to the Family Dollar on Fulton Street. While Waddy doesn’t shop for food at dollar stores, he said many of his friends, especially those who have lost jobs, have become less picky about foods.
Still, when it comes to low-cost food, there are hidden costs, said Gallagher. “Society ends up seeing the cost of it through emergency room visits and diseases that could be prevented or moderated by a better diet,” she said.
“Cheap food is not as cheap as we think.”
January 06, 2012|By Vernon Clark, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Facing strong community opposition, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has scrapped plans to build new homes atop a former 18th century burial ground for African Americans that now lies beneath a soon-to-be-demolished apartment complex in the Germantown section.
At a sometimes raucous meeting with about 150 community members and others Thursday night, Michael Johns, PHA’s general manager for community development and design, announced – to the surprise of many – that the authority had dropped plans to build more than 50 homes on the site of the former Germantown Potter’s Field.
During the meeting at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Johns cited opposition raised at a Dec. 15 meeting there.
“We always intended to honor the Potter’s Field by both ceremony and some kind of monument,” said Johns, but “we heard the voices of the community.”
He noted comments by a young woman who he said told him, “We believe that in 1955, when the high-rise was originally put on this site, that the ancestors were disrespected. And although your plan is to put houses where the current high rise is, and there are no remains left there, it still does not address the disrespect that was done to our ancestors back in 1955.”
Johns said the woman’s remarks prompted officials to reconsider.
“That hit all of us, and when we came back we had to look at things differently,” Johns said. “We thought we were doing the right thing by creating affordable housing on what was a potter’s field because of the sore need for affordable rental housing.
“We said . . . ‘Maybe we do need to open the Potter’s Field land up.’ We said, ‘We are going to open this site and we are going to honor the ancestors who were here.’ ”
The burial ground, established in the 1700s, lies beneath the twin towers of the Queen Lane Apartments at Queen Lane and Pulaski Avenue. Those apartments are set to be demolished in the next few months, along with the adjacent Wissahickon Playground.
Neighbors and others noted that when the 16-story complex, with 119 apartments, was constructed, some graves and human remains were disturbed.
A brief history of the Germantown Potter’s Field by the Germantown Historical Society notes that the lot that the burial ground would occupy was purchased in 1755 by Matthias Zimmerman for use as a “Burial Place for all Strangers, Negroes and Mulattoes as they Die in any part of Germantown forever.”
The earliest known recorded burial was that of Christian Warner’s “dead negro child” in 1766.
This has not been a good year for despots. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il met his maker, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is under arrest, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad faces a future that looks rocky. But in Philadelphia, City Council members get to rule their districts with an iron hand – at least for now.
Philadelphia is one of a dwindling number of big American cities where local legislators adhere to a courtly tradition called councilmanic prerogative. Like its royal antecedent, the prerogative grants the city’s 10 district Council members the right to do as they please in their own patch. Whatever the measure – a history plaque or a major zoning change – the rest of Council will rubber-stamp it, knowing the favor will be returned.
You may be relieved to hear that Philadelphia is not alone in holding fast to this aberrant practice, which is a favorite way to generate campaign contributions. The prerogative is still invoked in Chicago, where local aldermen are legendary for ruling their districts like medieval fiefs. It’s also used in Dallas, where a federal civil rights lawsuit was supposed to produce a fairer, cleaner system.
Yet nowhere in Philadelphia’s city charter will you find a word about councilmanic prerogative, or its most common application, zoning by fiat. “It’s tradition,” members declare in the same booming tones favored by Zero Mostel’s Tevye. Maybe so, but it’s one that should have gone out with smoke-filled rooms and envelopes fat with cash.
Council members defend the practice on the grounds that they know what’s best for their districts. What they have failed to notice is that such paternalism doesn’t play as well as it used to.
There are now signs, however faint, that the prerogative’s days may be numbered. This fall, residents of Germantown and Chestnut Hill rose up in revolt after retiring Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller used the prerogative to change the zoning of two sites, Chelten Plaza and Magarity Ford, to clear the way for controversial developments.
It was no coincidence that the constituents’ revolt occurred while Council was debating a new zoning code to replace the city’s bloated, Kennedy-era rule book. Weighted down with amendments and clauses, the old code was nearly impossible to understand without the assistance of a high-priced lawyer.
Such complexity created the perfect market conditions for councilmanic prerogative to thrive. The more barriers you throw up, the more work you create for gatekeepers. Developers were encouraged to express their thanks with campaign contributions.
Although there are certainly times when Council rezonings are essential to democratic checks and balances, more often they feel like end runs around the process. For instance, when the Zoning Board of Adjustment grants a variance, it comes with a deadline. The site reverts to its original zoning classification if nothing is built. But a Council rezoning is forever.
Meanwhile, Council rezonings often occur before anyone knows the projects exist. Neighbors didn’t learn the Family Court site at 15th and Arch Streets had been rezoned to accommodate a taller, bulkier building until construction was ready to start. The zoning board requires developers to display bright orange signs on their property to advertise a hearing. No such tip-offs are required for Council rezonings.
Now that Council has approved a modern zoning code, it should have few opportunities to exercise its cherished privilege. Unlike the old code, the sleek new, 384-page zoning rule book tells people what they can build, rather than listing all the things they can’t. That means there should be less need for Council gatekeepers to offer their fix-it services. Councilmanic privilege could even be rendered obsolete someday.
At least that’s the optimistic view.
Actually, it’s happening in Chicago, according to Jim Peters, a former city planner who teaches at the University of Illinois. Since the city passed a new code in 2004, he says, aldermen have tended to invoke privilege less often, leaving planning decisions to professionals.
Of course, Peters adds, the change in behavior may have something to do with the fact that a dozen aldermen have gone to jail for abusing councilmanic prerogative. The practice is so deeply ingrained in Chicago politics that when the Board of Aldermen approached then-Mayor Richard J. Daley in the ’70s about a salary increase, he is supposed to have quipped, “Why do you need a pay raise when you have zoning?”
It’s hard for Philadelphia good-government types, such as Zack Stalberg at the Committee of Seventy, to imagine that Council will relinquish its prerogative. He fears the practice could even undermine the new zoning code if members continue their ad hoc rezonings.
Unlike a bad law, councilmanic prerogative can’t be revoked. But we know from the democratic movements sweeping the Middle East and Russia that even the most arrogant of tyrants can’t last forever.
It’s the morning after Donna Reed Miller appeared at her last City Council meeting. Her successor, Cindy Bass, has arrived at Wired Beans – the Germantown Avenue coffee shop that served as her ad hoc campaign headquarters – to talk about the future of the Eighth District.
She’s not feeling 100 percent in a way that those with youngsters who sometimes bring the sniffles home from day care would understand.
A day earlier, Reed Miller said she had no idea what Bass’s plans were for the district, potentially an effect of not paying attention to the campaign itself. Bass, who notes Reed Miller’s “history and legacy as an advocate on behalf of the voiceless,” would spend an hour doing exactly that.
The conversation starts with Bass talking about a recent trip to the state prison at Graterford. Her takeaway: Poverty, subpar educational opportunities and lack of jobs combine to grease too many city residents’ path to becoming a prison lifer.
“They’re intermingled,” she says of the problems that crop up throughout the district. They’re also big-picture societal woes for which one of 17 people serving on Philadelphia City Council can’t craft an re-election accomplishments “one-sheet.”
While Bass says she’ll come out of the gate with bills and legislative proposals, she won’t get specific about them quite yet. What she’ll talk about before her Jan. 2 swearing-in ceremony is a willingness to look city- and nationwide for models that could address local woes and “bring people to the table.”
Accessibility right off the bat
A common complaint about her predecessor – and about politics in general these days – is that people feel disconnected and not part of the process. It comes up often when talking about the Eighth District, and Bass says she has specific ideas about changing the perception that residents are left out.
“There is a long, long history of organizations, groups who have been frustrated for a very long time,” she said. “What happens next is we’re going to do everything we can to change that. You hear that throughout the district, but you hear it throughout every district. Everybody feels neglected, that they’re not a priority. We hear them. We listen to them. And we understand them.”
How will that manifest itself? Community forums. Focus groups. Meetings with people financially and civically invested in the business corridors. An interactive website on which Bass could do live chats and field questions from constituents (which would be a first for a Council member). And, a Council field office (which she thinks would be a second).
“We want to hear what people have to say,” she explains. “We want to reach out to folks that haven’t felt included. The district needs to be unified. Nicetown. Germantown. Chestnut Hill. We’re all in this together.”
The Philadelphia Housing Authority has plans for demolition and redevelopment for the Queen Lane high-rise project, located at 301 West Queen Lane. This housing project has been sitting on top of Germantown’s Potter Field since 1955. This was a common burial site for enslaved and free African–Americans, Indians, Mullatoes and Strangers who could only afford to pay $1.00 to $23.00 for a personal grave dig, from the period of 1755-1918.
Eugene Glenn Stackhouse, Historian and former President of Germantown Historical Society writes in his excerpt that, Edward John Reser in his publication,”Reser and Allied Families” in possession of the Germantown Historical Society states in 1755 the residents of Germantown are united to provide a potter’s field. Baltes Reser acted as a trustee on behalf of the community in purchasing the 2 acres at Queen Lane (formerly Bowman s Lane) and Pulaski Avenue and Penn Street.
According to dates from 1766, the Trustees Christian Lassher, Justus Fox and High Sheriff of the city of Philadelphia became solely responsible of making sure that Africans –American had a proper burial site. In 1916, there weren’t any more plots and the land became desolate, littered with trash, broken glass as well as household garbage. Chicken, ducks stray dogs and cats filtered
the lot. In 1915, the Germantown Poor Board in cooperation of the Chestnut Hill Improvement Association agreed that plans would be made until 1916 when the Philadelphia Board of Healthdeclared Germantown Potter’s Field a public nuisance. In 1920, John T. Emlen and members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) sponsored a survey with the residents who wished for a playground. The playground was established and was used from children from the Wissahickon Boys Club.
It’s ironic that the same history has repeated itself. The Germantown Potter’s Field is exactly where the 16 story last PHA high-rise project has stood for fifty –six years causing a neighborhood to become oppressed with a poorly managed building full of drug activity, killings, trashed apartments, a broken elevator, disfunctioning trash incinerator and hallways filled remnants of feces, urine odors and pestilence. Now the PHA tenants have been evacuated and the lot stands vacant with a desolate playground worth $176, 000 that was unethically sold to PHA from unanimous City Council vote to convey the land from a Quit Deed of a $1.00 exchange with no reversion clauses to return it back to the Department of Parks and Recreation.
The ancestors are crying out and souls are at unrest from this PHA travesty of not caring to memorialize and respect consecrated grounds. There are numerous reports from homeowners who have suffered emotional damage by
witnessing scattered bones, bodies found in their basements and headstones that were disrespectfully shattered. Ms. Doris Clark, a Block Captain on the 500 Block of West Coulter Street stated, that as a little girl, “I fell in a man-hole that was not fenced off and the neighbors had to pull me out by bed sheets that were tied together.” PHA has done nothing to remove the remains and placed them in a proper burial site or museum.
PHA conducted a meeting held on October 20th at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and Michael Johns, a PHA Developer stated that PHA will provide demolition and redevelopment of fifty-five renter units without any funding for homeownership and there was no mention of the reconstruction of a playground.
Community meetings conducted by the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown,(a newly formed organization whose mission is to restore Germantown back to it’s original greatness) were held at Canaan Baptist on November 28th where State Representative Rosita Youngblood and Council Elect, Cindy Bass stated that they are against having any recreational facilities taken away from the children and a PHA development that does not include homeownership options.
A follow up meeting was held on December 7th by Northwest Neighbors of Germantown who invited Yvonne Haskins Esq., who battled it out with Chelten Plaza Developers and City Councilperson Donna Reed Miller for engaging in Spot-zoning issues and won. Attorney Haskins discussed the pros and cons of a 4% tax credit that PHA is relying upon to build this $20 million project in which in a course of ten years the developer will profit $8 million which rightfully belongs to the tax payer. PHA was invited to attend two of these meetings but refused to attend.
Congressman Chaka Fattah, State Senator Shirley Kitchen, State Representative Rosita Youngblood and Councilwoman, Elect Cindy Bass who weren’t aware of these plans and all oppose the tax credit as a funding source. This application will not permit any legislative and community input once it is processed. Representative Youngblood forewarned, “Quite frankly, it will not be approved with the community’s and legislatures ’opposition which is a requirement by
Philadelphia Housing Financial Agency.”
The homeowners surrounding the Queen Lane Projects which is the only high rise building left in the city are outraged that they weren’t part of the planning process in developing this location to include homeowner options, and to include the reconstruction of the Wissahickon Playground. The goals of PHA for achieving excellence in property management, developing quality housing that supports balanced communities, improving program compliance by reporting, performance, and accountability, and implementing public safety that promotes the well being of neighborhoods has not been met within the 301 West Queen Lane Housing Projects for the past fifty years. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has a $371 million annual budget that comes from several sources. Most of PHA’s funding comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which covers a budget of $1.5 million in state and federal money in the form of grants. PHA received $126.9 million in stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve and expand affordable housing throughout the city. The 30Queen Lane of Germantown was never part of this funding or any improvement plans. There isn’t a night or a day free of police sirens, fire trucks, and paramedic ambulances racing towards the Queen Lane High Rises and we, the members of the community are sick of it! We fear for our children to continue playing on the Wisshickon Playground because of all the violence!
PHA’s main goal is to provide exceptional customer service to their clients, landlords and other partners in the community by thriving on improving the quality of life for all their participants by providing decent, clean, safe and affordable housing and this hasn’t been the case in Germantown.
It is stated on PHA’s website that the Customer Supportive Services Team offers residents training services in homeownership programs to help them gain valuable skills and achieve self-sufficiency. PHA has also stated that they are paving the way to increase self-sufficiency by creating the opportunity for participants to become homeowners.
This is contradictive because they are only opting for renter units for the Queen Lane area. PHA had up until March 2011 to apply for a 12 million grant thru HUD’s resolution adjustment program and PHA opted not to apply, but wants to use money from taxpayers instead and without our voices.
The Northwest Neighbors of Germantown demands that PHA would have us to become stakeholders in the planning process and that PHA would secure additional federal funds through HUD that can provide an equal balance of renters and homeownership that can provide an appreciation of quality living. This would help to improve the community and increase property value of other homeowners.
The NW Neighbors have written letters presented to Michael Kelly and his response is to locate vacant lots and abandon scattered sites for homeownership, and provide a green space, community meeting room and playground in the middle of the renter units. There were demands to have an excavation of remains for the Germantown Potter’s Field and for PHA to pay to have Historical Marker erected and a community planned ceremony, but the building must come down and no longer disturb the dead.
PHA will conduct a community meeting Thursday, December 15, 2011 at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church 533 Pulaski Avenue in Germantown from 6:00pm to 7:30pm. The Northwest Neighbors of Germantown is being represented by Yvonne Haskins Esquire in partnership with Germantown Historical Society and the NAACP in an attempt to acknowledge and preserve our ancestors from the Germantown Potter’s Field.
-Lisa Hopkins- Block Captain for 500 Queen Lane
When you write about politics, you sometimes find beauty in the simplest of things.
Yesterday, we saw another example of why the work of Philadelphia Board of Ethics is one of the most inspired developments I’ve seen in covering 30 years of government and politics in this town.
The board wrapped up a case that began in May with evidence of a garden variety abuse of public office.
Two City Council employees were caught using city time and city photocopiers in their city office to produce a political flier aimed at voters in a contested City Council primary.
Just a few years back, there were two ways of handling this kind of misconduct:
1) Ignoring it.
2) Convening a federal grand jury and bringing serious criminal charges.
That’s because there was no ethics board, really, and the Philadelphia District Attorney had no interest in this kind of stuff. Consider the likely effects of the two courses of action described above:
1) By ignoring the misconduct, we send the message throughout city government and the political community that this stuff will not be punished, so everyone is free to do as they wish. Soon, petty abuse of public office starts to seem normal. Over time, politicians conclude they have to cut ethical corners, or lose to rivals who do.
2) An FBI investigation takes forever, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and brings the full weight of the federal government down on the miscreant targeted, charging as many serious crimes as possible to justify the expense and effort of the investigation. Since the feds lack the resources to do this on every tip, law enforcement’s response tends to default to option 1 – ignore the crap.
Getting a real Ethics Board changed all this. At last, there was a body that could do what makes sense: make smaller, simpler and more frequent corrections to misconduct, so that everybody gets the message that the crap has to stop, and they understand the consequences.
The case settled yesterday involved Kacy Nickens and Michael Moore, employees of outgoing Councilwoman Donna Miller. They were likely to lose their jobs when she left office in January anyway, but they lose them a few days earlier and are barred from further city employment for a year.
Nickens will pay a $300 fine. Moore, whose prohibited political activity went beyond the fliers, owes $3,800. Both will pay a price. It will hurt. But their lives aren’t ruined. They don’t have to suffer a two-year investigation and then live forever as felons.
The punishment fit the offense, and was negotiated with both parties rather than battled out in court. In fact, Moore’s settlement provides that he won’t have to pay most of his fine until after he finds post-city employment.
You can read the Ethics board’s release and the settlement agreements, and see the flier in question here.
One other piece of the episode deserves comment. The flier the two were working on was to tell voters of the 59th ward (my home ward) in Germantown whom their ward leader was endorsing in the primary. The ward leader of the 59th is Miller, the Councilwoman the two employees were working for.
A logical question is whether Michael Moore decided to produce this flier on his own, or had instructions from Miller. When I asked Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer if his investigation showed Miller had a role, he responded this way: “I won’t answer that directly but I will note that elected officials are not subject to the political activity restrictions in the charter.”
I called Miller’s office late yesterday and the person who answered said she’d get a message to the Councilwoman, but I never heard back. Which doesn’t surprise me – she hasn’t cared much about talking to me for a long time.
There’s a pattern to what the Ethics Board is doing here. Earlier this year the board announced a settlement with former Deputy City Commissioner Rene Tartaglione, another public official involved in prohibited political activity.
She lost a well-paid public job and had to pay a $2,700 fine.
At some point, I think folks are going to get the message.