Power: Manage This

What’s it really like to run Philadelphia? From snowstorms and stadium implosions to an FBI bug, Mayor Street’s former managing director tells all

 The managing director’s job doesn’t just consist of responding to emergencies; it also entails trying to prevent them in the first place. That’s done by asking the right questions of department heads, to ensure they’ve thought through various contingencies. You act as the orchestra conductor, making sure all the departments are reading the same score. With 16 departments and more than 20,000 employees, the sound was often dissonant, but when they performed in unison in, say, a major snow emergency, I felt like Eugene Ormandy.

The writers of the City Charter understood that the managing director is different from other mayoral appointees. Appointees can be fired at the whim of the mayor, but to can the managing director, the Charter states, the mayor must show cause: “The nature of the duties to be performed by this officer is such as to make desirable his having some measure of independence and freedom from unwarranted pressures from the Mayor.”

There are times when a mayor’s political interests and the effective operation of government can clash. Whatever pressure I felt never came from the Mayor. However, I would hear from time to time from some of his political aides. In the heat of the moment, conversations could turn ugly.

If I didn’t do something that the political people wanted, I could be accused of not being a team player. “You give little thought to the political ramifications of your actions,” I was lectured more than once. Or as one e-mail said, “You think less of the Mayor and more of how things look for you and your image to friends and associates.”

But I never believed that those messages represented Street’s views. And I continued doing my job as I saw fit. On one occasion, the Mayor called and asked me to attend a meeting in his conference room. When I walked in, I was greeted by a political cast of characters who looked and acted as though they were from the set of The Sopranos. As the discussion about some proposed (questionable) business deal droned on, I wondered why Street had asked me to be there. It soon dawned on me that I had been invited because he knew I would object, and for whatever reason, he didn’t want to be the bad guy. When I went into his office after the meeting, he asked me to look at the proposal but reminded me that my job was to keep him out of trouble and make sure we never paid more for anything than we should. It didn’t take much time on my part to see that the proposal only benefited those who had a business interest in it.

When I agreed to become managing director, Street was entering the final year of his first term. I didn’t know whether he would win reelection. When he did, he asked me to stay on, and I decided to serve for another year and a half. I was approaching 60. I had several grandchildren, and while my health was good, I didn’t want to push my luck.