What’s it really like to run Philadelphia? Mayor Street’s former managing director tells all
It was 1:20 a.m. on February 3rd, 2003, when the ring of the telephone shattered my sleep. “It’s for you,” my wife said as she handed me the phone.
“Sorry to bother you, Director, but there’s a five-alarm fire on Grays Ferry Avenue,” the voice on the other end said.
“Thanks,” I replied, and hung up.
“What’s that about?” my wife Essie asked.
“It was the City Hall operator telling me we have a five-alarm fire in Grays Ferry.”
“What the hell do you know about fires?” she demanded, with all the disdain she feels for a husband who does no manual labor around the house, not even stoking the fireplace.
“I know we have a good fire department,” I responded as I rolled over and fell back to sleep.
But she had a point. What did I know? I wasn’t scheduled to report for my first day as Philadelphia’s managing director until seven hours later. Yet I had already received my first emergency call.
When I’d accepted Mayor John Street’s offer to become managing director a few weeks earlier, I knew the job would be chock-full of emergencies, but I didn’t expect them to come in rapid-fire succession. On my second morning on the job, a key department head, Riley Harrison, who was responsible for the city’s 6,000 vehicles, was found dead of natural causes in his apartment. It fell to me to go to his office, gather all the employees in the conference room, tell them who I was, inform them their boss was dead, and name a successor. I felt totally inadequate doing grief counseling, since I hardly knew the man and didn’t know any of his employees, who were in shock. Later I would learn more about Harrison’s achievements in fleet management, and see Mayor Street’s eyes well up when he talked about him. They had a special bond. Street loved trucks, and Riley would often bring pictures of the city’s newest trucks to meetings with him.
On my third day, we had a snowstorm. Channel 6 was on the telephone when I arrived at my office and wanted to do a live phone interview with me.
“What category of snowstorm is this?” the reporter asked.
What category of snowstorm is this? I didn’t know there were different snowstorm categories. My goal in life was to avoid snowstorms, not learn how to categorize them.
But I couldn’t acknowledge that. Without missing a beat, I responded, “I don’t care what category of snowstorm it is. Our job is to remove the snow from the streets, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
The reporter liked my no-nonsense response. “Ladies and gentlemen, you just heard from Phil Goldsmith, the city’s managing director. The city is prepared to fight the snowstorm.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. I realized then that I might be able to bullshit my way through the job.
Over the next two years, I was faced with several emergencies a day. I never knew what they might be: a cop shot, a deadly fire, a water-main break, a gas explosion, a snowstorm, an anthrax scare, squirrels accidentally poisoned in Rittenhouse Square by my own health department — or a bug found in the Mayor’s office.
This city’s managing director is more than a fix-it guy. In business terms, he’s the city’s chief operating officer, responsible for all the operating departments: police, fire, health, streets, recreation, Fairmount Park, human services, public property, records, licenses and inspections, projects, water, homeless, emergency management, the libraries and the prisons.
The job was created in the city’s 1951 Home Rule Charter. The Charter fathers described it this way: “The duties of the Mayor of a city the size of Philadelphia are so extensive and make such demands upon his time that it is almost a physically impossible task for the Mayor to supervise closely all the operations conducted by the various departments and other agencies of the executive branch of the city government. … The Charter attacks this problem by creating the office of Managing Director.”
I would have described it more simply, though less elegantly: Shit flows downhill.
I was serving as interim executive director of Fairmount Park when I received a call from the Mayor in early January 2003. Estelle Richman, then the managing director, had accepted an offer to join Governor Rendell’s cabinet, and Street wondered if I would replace her.
I thought I was well-suited for the job. I had served in both the private and public sectors. In the early 1980s, I was deputy mayor for policy and planning under Mayor William J. Green. When I left city government, I joined PNC Bank, where I spent 13 years, first managing its branch system and then its $7 billion consumer loan business. I later managed a couple of other businesses. I also understood the media, having been a reporter and an editorial writer at the Inquirer at the start of my career.
And a few years earlier, I had developed a professional working relationship with Street. His Secretary of Education, Debra Kahn, a longtime friend of mine, recommended me for the post of interim chief executive officer of the school district. I served for a tumultuous 14 months, from October 2000 to December 2001. The district was nearly bankrupt, and we were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the state over funding and control. I left a few days prior to the state takeover, and while I didn’t go to the press conference announcing the “partnership” with the Commonwealth, Street publicly thanked me for my service and said somewhat cryptically, “We aren’t done with you yet, Phil.”
And sure enough, he wasn’t. I agreed to become managing director. After all, it was the “mother” of all management jobs, and I love challenges.
There have now been 19 managing directors — six in the first 30 years of the position’s creation, and 13 in the next 25 years. The average tenure of the managing director has decreased from five years to two. That’s as good an indication as any of how difficult it has become to manage the city. Starting in the late 1970s, the federal government began to systematically bail on urban America. In 1975, for example, the streets department, supported by federal dollars, had 3,700 employees; today, with a sliver of federal funds, the department is half of what it was (though the city has no fewer streets).
Minorities now have a much more powerful voice in government. Long gone are the days when city services could be delivered to one section of the city but not another. In a city populated with a large segment of poor, elderly and non-English-speaking people, with an aging infrastructure, there is more to do with far less. Regardless of race, color, creed or income level, no one seems quite satisfied.
To really understand the challenges faced by a managing director and a mayor, it’s helpful to remember “Tip” O’Neill’s famous dictum: “All politics is local.” O’Neill could have been referring to Philadelphia’s 152 neighborhoods, where a mayor’s best intentions can be sabotaged by insurgents. Want to build more affordable housing, attract a developer or welcome a new business? They’re all worthwhile initiatives for the overall welfare of the city, but good luck finding a welcoming neighborhood.
While Philadelphia owes much of its rich character to the tapestry of its neighborhoods, their strength can make it difficult for a mayor to enact a larger vision for the city. A neighborhood’s muscle is often flexed by its district Council member, who can single-handedly stop the best project from going forward. The run-down, 55-year-old Youth Study Center on the Ben Franklin Parkway is a good example. For years it was apparent a new center was needed, and when the decision was made to move the Barnes Foundation to Philadelphia, what better site than where the Youth Study Center sits now?
After months of consideration, a decision was made to move the center to 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia. District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell agreed, but then recanted. A win-win for the city — a progressive, modernized facility for troubled children, a home for a world-class museum — had been thwarted. While the roadblock has now been removed — thanks largely to the city agreeing to open a new community center in Jannie’s district and name it after her late husband Lucien — the delay will cost taxpayers somewhere around an additional $15 million.
Legislative bodies, whether in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Washington, always have prickly relationships with the executive branch. It’s part of our separation of powers. Former Mayor Green once called City Council the worst legislative body in the free world. Street, who presided over Council and made life much easier for then-Mayor Rendell, complained about it, too.
Is it any wonder that the two architects of the casino legislation in Harrisburg, Ed Rendell and Vince Fumo, who both know a thing or two about neighborhood roadblocks, were careful to keep the city from having any say in where its casinos were built?
Psychologist Abraham Maslow was no politician, but his theory of a “hierarchy of needs” is a companion corollary to Tip’s “All politics is local.”
As I traveled around the city, I could see Maslow’s entire hierarchy right before my eyes. I remember meeting in Rittenhouse Square one day with residents who were clamoring to have some trees pruned. I was then called to a crack house on the 5600 block of Beaumont Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia, where a mother of two young children had a propane gas heater hooked up to the oven to provide warmth and a wading pool in the living room as the family’s toilet.
Same city, same day.
In Maslow’s theory, the family in Southwest Philadelphia represented the base of the hierarchy — basic physiological needs — and the Rittenhouse Square group that wanted the trees pruned was the hierarchy’s apex of self-actualization. A managing director and mayor need to accommodate the two extremes of Maslow’s hierarchy.
It’s a grueling, pressure-packed job. While I got to the office at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and left 12 hours later, that didn’t define the workday. My BlackBerry would go off incessantly, with e-mails from the Mayor, commissioners and citizens. I received an e-mail alert every time a major crime occurred — including suicides (more than 125 a year).
When I walked down the street, I saw litter to pick up, potholes to fill, illegal signs to remove, street lights to repair. One night, my wife and I were dining outside at Brasserie Perrier on Walnut Street when I saw a city car parked illegally. I walked across the street to track down a Parking Authority officer. Twenty minutes later, when I returned, my food was cold and my wife was hot.
I managed to survive the long days thanks to 20 minutes of morning meditation and a nightly Ambien sleeping pill. I certainly couldn’t count on vacations for time to unwind. In late August 2003, I was at the Shore, watching the news, when I saw the face of my assistant managing director all over the tube. It was during Mayor Street’s reelection campaign against Sam Katz, and the assistant managing director got into a fight in North Philadelphia in front of a Katz campaign office. The press tracked me down and hounded me for a comment. So much for that vacation.
A year later, again at the Shore, I received a phone call from the City Hall operator. Two firefighters had been seriously hurt in a fire in Kensington ignited by an illegal marijuana-growing operation. I rushed back to the city, only to learn that Captain John Taylor and firefighter Rey Rubio had died. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time I sped to a hospital to join the Mayor and the police commissioner or fire commissioner, who would brief the press and console the family of the officer or firefighter.
My most unusual trip came after I received a call alerting me that an injured policeman had been taken to Temple University Hospital. I started flying down City Avenue with my lights and siren on. I knew I was going too fast, and when I saw a police car parked on the berm, I pulled alongside it and told the officer I was the managing director and was headed to Temple, to see an injured cop.
“Officer, could you give me an escort, please?” I asked.
“Sir, I don’t know how to get there,” she responded. “So I’ll follow you.”
By this time, nothing surprised me in the job, though that one had me muttering to myself as I raced down City Avenue, escorting the cop who was following me.
Mayor Street and I enjoyed a good, professional working relationship. We weren’t social buddies. I never called him John, and can’t imagine doing so now. But I often e-mailed him satirical messages and jokes, and he would sometimes ask where his copy was when he learned he hadn’t been included on my e-mail joke list. While others said he micro-managed, I rarely experienced it. He was a student of the City Charter. He understood that the commissioners in charge of each department reported to the managing director, and he almost always followed the chain of command. If he wanted something from a department, he called me, not a commissioner. Frankly, he could have called anyone anytime he wanted. After all, he was the mayor.
I was with Street on the morning of October 7, 2003, shortly after the FBI bug was found. I had received a phone call about 8 a.m. that a firefighter had been taken to the hospital after a one-alarm fire on Aramingo Avenue. I e-mailed the Mayor and said I was headed to the hospital; he replied he would be going, too. I asked if I could catch a ride with him. When I met him on the apron at the northeast corner of City Hall, he had just learned that a listening device had been found in his office ceiling.
We rode to the hospital while gospel music, as usual, poured from the speakers of his van. When we arrived, we learned that the firefighter, James Allen, had died of a heart attack. On our way back, Street started talking about Abscam. I remembered the scandal very well because Bill Green, whom I had been working for at the time, had just become mayor when three city councilmen, including powerful Council president George X. Schwartz, were caught taking bribes from FBI agents dressed as Arab sheiks.
From the ruins of the old City Council power base rose a newly elected councilman by the name of John Street. He agitated for Schwartz to resign, which Schwartz did. Street stepped into the power vacuum. The rest, as they say, is history. He eventually became City Council president. As Street and I, inside the van, exchanged memories of those days, I didn’t yet recognize the enormity and implications of what had just been discovered in his office, weeks prior to the election.
While the probe dominated the news, I continued to go about my business, as did other cabinet members. We had a government to run. Still, you couldn’t ignore the headlines. There was a big elephant in the room, but we didn’t talk about it much.
To Street’s credit, he carried on as though he was having another “great day.” Here was a man under intense scrutiny: All his past financial records were under the forensic microscope, the FBI was combing through his e-mails, and his reputation for honesty was being tarnished by press leaks.
I couldn’t imagine the pressure he felt. Yet I never saw him show it. I admired his composure, and attributed his strength to his spiritual and religious faith, which he didn’t talk about publicly but which was an integral part of his life. I hungered for more, though. I wanted him to speak out forcefully for the need for high ethical standards in government. Whether he was muzzled by his lawyers or was characteristically refusing to play to the crowd, his failure to be proactive cost him the high moral ground. And since perception becomes reality in politics, his credibility suffered, and his effectiveness began to wane.
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.
When I left in March 2005 — 26 months after I’d arrived — I had a vastly different view of Philadelphia from when I started. I had seen a city of much more complexity and diversity than I’d ever imagined. Each day was like peeling back an onion, finding a new layer. And that onion could move me to tears when I saw the inequity in a city of haves and have-nots.
I tried to experience firsthand what city workers did. I worked on a trash truck. I went to the city morgue, where the victims of our streets are brought. I rode with the police, explored our underground sewers with the water department, visited health clinics where people waited for hours. I went to the prisons, visited homeless shelters, monitored 911 calls and observed how quickly life-and-death decisions had to be made.
I became impatient with people who demean city workers, who profess easy answers to difficult problems, whose view of the city is confined to their own neighborhood, job, race or income level.
I believe in the potential greatness of our city. But I think that potential will only be realized when we see Philadelphia as one large garden that we all have a stake in tending, regardless of where in the garden we live. A managing director is responsible for overseeing all that acreage. Why, with so much aggravation, would someone want to do that? Well, if you relish challenges, are eager to make a difference, are egotistical enough to think you might succeed, like the unexpected, and get bored easily, it’s the perfect job.
And virtually every managing director I’ve talked to says it was the best job he or she ever had. But we all say it as we’re on our way out.