Power: Is This Any Way to Clean Up the City?

Ethics watchdog Shane Creamer has slapped the hands of Philly power brokers like Johnny Doc. But are his bark and bite as vicious as they should be?

EVEN THE NITTY-GRITTY stuff, though, can ruffle feathers — sometimes in unexpected places. In reading the city charter’s ban on employee politicking, the board decided on an interpretation forbidding appointees to certain city boards and commissions to engage in any sort of politics. So much for Dr. David Grande, whose health policy expertise made him a natural choice for the city’s prison board. Grande turned down an appointment in part because it meant quitting his position as a Democratic committeeman. The ban extends beyond city politics, all the way up to plunking a Barack Obama sign in your yard. And it has made it tougher to recruit for everything from the library board to the Historical Commission. Who’s inconvenienced by what even Creamer acknowledges is an overly broad law? Ironically, it’s Nutter, who rode ethics agita into the mayor’s office. “We now know that there are some complications we didn’t know about a year ago or two years ago, and we have to look at them,” says Terry Gillen, a longtime Nutter strategist who is executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority.

In fact, Creamer catches heat from goo-goo types nearly as often as he does from those who bellyache that he’s conspiring against machine pols. Zack Stalberg, who runs the Committee of Seventy watchdog group, says the board’s strict-constructionist style amounts to dodging the more important duty to speak out. “People expect a Board of Ethics to be making ethical judgments, not making legalistic judgments about their authority,” says Stalberg. He cites sins of omission including a lack of criticism when Nutter charged the city to take his aides to the Democratic National Convention (Creamer said there’s no law against it) and the lack of public cheerleading in favor of proposed anti-nepotism laws (Creamer says over-the-top lobbying would be — you guessed it — inappropriate).

If the ethics board can’t vent about generalized sleaze, who can? In early October, Nutter introduced a new task force to improve good-government laws. It was a classic answer to the process questions about the current ethics rules and the board that administers them: another commission. City Hall has had a veritable population explosion in the government-integrity sector over the years. On the elected side, there’s always been a district attorney, empowered to bust fellow pols but rarely so inclined. Philadelphia’s charter enshrines a City Controller, with his or her own nosy-parker powers that also tend not to be deployed. Since the 1980s, there’s been an Inspector General, an office many suspect because its occupant is a mayoral employee. Nutter this year created a $150,000-per-year Chief Integrity Officer. And now there was a new ethics-law task force on top of the ethics board.