Darrell Clarke’s School District Power Play

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Left, Darrell Clarke. Right, Bill Hite. | Photos by City Council and Associated Press.

City Council President Darrell Clarke has grown profoundly frustrated with the School District of Philadelphia in recent years. Now he looks poised to turn that frustration into action — and the impact on the district could be huge.

In private and in public, Clarke in recent weeks has ratcheted up pressure on the district and the School Reform Commission. He’s laying the groundwork for a campaign — one that likely will begin in earnest after likely next mayor Jim Kenney takes office in January — that is designed to win back some local control over the district, particularly its finances.

What’s his latest beef? Ostensibly, it was over a number of recent hirings and promotions in the school district’s central offices, which, after three straight years of fiscal crisis, is now staffed by a skeleton crew. Seriously. The number of empty desks in the (admittedly too big) district headquarters at 440 N. Broad is both depressing and alarming.

Clarke’s point, though, is that Superintendent William Hite came to City Council in the spring seeking cash on account of the dire needs in classrooms, not district HQ. He says, in essence, that Council didn’t approve $70 million* in new funding for it to be spent on senior bureaucrats making six figures. Read more »

Council’s New Hires: $105K for a Graphic Designer & a Social Media Maven

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A sample of City Councils new graphic designer at work.

There’s no arguing that City Council could use a little help with its image. And it’s getting it, in the form of two relatively new staff positions in the Office of City Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

The hires? Anthony Buford, a full-time graphic designer, who was put on Council’s payroll in January, and Patricia Gillett, a full-time digital media director, hired in July. Their salaries are $50,000 and $55,000, respectively, plus generous city benefits.

Citified heard about the new positions this week, when council staffers were invited by the “Council Creative Team” to a “quick, 1-hour training course for finding, selecting and preparing photos for print and digital uses.” Also on the agenda? “A short introduction to the new City Council logo…” Read more »

$25 Million for City Schools, Suddenly in Doubt?

School District of Philadelphia

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Last spring, which feels like eons ago, City Council grudgingly agreed to increase funding to the School District of Philadelphia by $70 million. That was $30 million short of what the district was asking for, but $70 million really is a big round number, and it took a bevy of tax hikes — including a 4.5 percent hike in the property tax rate — to raise the funds.

City Council was grouchy in the extreme about coming up with that $70 million. So grouchy that it opted to hold onto $25 million of the $70 million — to be released to the district only when and if Council decided to do so.

Well, the school year hasn’t even begun, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke already has some real problems with what the district is doing; specifically Superintendent Bill Hite’s spending of $1 million on big new promotions and hires for central office administrators. Read more »

Next Year’s Starting City Hall Budget: $0

"I know that pension fund is in here somewhere." | Shutterstock.com.

“I know that pension fund is in here somewhere.” | Shutterstock.com.

Government budgets are a lot like basements: there’s really vital stuff in there, but plenty of crap as well. As the years grind on, the basement gets ever messier, ever more jammed and ever more unwieldy. What’s all that stuff for? Do we really need all of it? After a while, nobody really knows.

But who wants to sort it out? What a nightmare.

And yet, that’s exactly what Democratic mayoral nominee says he Jim Kenney intends to do if elected mayor in November. And if he’s upset by ultra-underdog GOP nominee Melissa Murray Bailey, well she plans to do the same.

Both are advocates of what’s called zero-based budgeting. It works like this: instead of creating a budget based on last year’s spending plan, as is the norm, city departments would have to start from scratch. With a zero-based budget, departments and agencies would be asked to articulate their mission and priorities, then justify every dollar they request based on how effectively a given program advances the mission.

Zero-based budgeting is not a particularly new idea, and it’s not a panacea for financially strained governments. It costs a lot of money to run a big city, and a new budget system can’t change that reality. But when done well — which is a big qualifier — zero-based budgeting can reduce wasteful spending, make government a bit more more efficient and help departments shed work they shouldn’t be doing, and focus more clearly on the stuff that matters most. Read more »

SEPTA Is Trying to Become More Bike Friendly

SEPTA Regional Rail is booming. Last year the service set a ridership record: 37.4 million trips were made last year. To meet demand, SEPTA is buying new locomotives and looking for bi-level railcars.

But there’s a bottleneck in the system: parking. The largely diminutive lots surrounding SEPTA’s regional rail stops in the suburbs are usually jammed.

One potential answer? Bikes. SEPTA’s 2016 budget includes $3 million for new bike infrastructure at 15 regional rail stations over the next three years, Next City reports. It’s one key element of the agency’s new Cycle-Transit plan, which aims to make SEPTA more convenient for the growing number of bicycle riders. As the plan puts it: Read more »

Report: District Attorney Seth Williams Is Subject of Federal Investigation

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The Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that District Attorney Seth Williams is being investigated by a federal grand jury. Citing unnamed sources, the Inquirer reports that the grand jury has subpoenaed Williams’ campaign finance records “to determine if he misspent funds on personal expenses.”

Chris Brennan writes:

Subpoenas were served as recently as two weeks ago to Friends of Seth Williams, his political action committee, said the source, who described the investigation as a joint effort of the FBI and IRS, with a grand jury impaneled at least two months ago.

Williams, who won office in 2009 and is serving his second term, is seen as one of the city’s elite political stars, and his name has been in the running as a potential candidate for U.S. Senate (he passed) and as a potential challenger to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane.

Williams’ statewide profile has grown over the last year, largely owing to his public spat with Kane, who deep-sixed a corruption investigation that had caught-up six Philadelphia elected officials. Williams took those cases on, and so far he’s extracted four guilty pleas. The two remaining targets are still fighting the charges.

The Inquirer took a look at Williams’ campaign expenses, and highlighted a few transactions, including dues at the Sporting Club and more than $28,000 for meals, dues and a fundraiser at the Union League. You can take a look at Williams’ 2014 campaign finance report at the bottom of this post.

Typically, enforcement of campaign spending regulations is relatively lax, particularly in Pennsylvania. Under state law, any expense that meets the standard of “influencing the outcome of an election” is considered a permissible expense. And there are plenty of city officials who have chosen to interpret that standard very broadly. The campaign of Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, for instance, has used campaign funds to pay the water bills of constituents and help fund the Olympic training of Philadelphia athletes. It’s also not uncommon to see campaign funds used to purchase expensive dinners, pay for Ubers, clothing and other expenses that don’t appear to have an immediate connection to election day.

Read more »

Democrats Sweep Special Elections

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Three special elections were held in Philadelphia yesterday to fill vacant seats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Who won? The Democrats, of course. Easily.

Johnny Doc acolyte and former at-large City Councilman Ed Neilson — that master of special elections — beat Republican challenger Timothy Dailey by a nearly 2-1 margin in the Northeast’s 174th District. And that was the closest race of the day. By far. In the 191st district, in Southwest Philadelphia, Joanna McClinton, chief counsel to State Sen. and former mayoral candidate Anthony Williams beat out third party candidate Tracey Gordon, 70 percent to 26 percent. The GOP contender, one Charles Wilkins Jr., had all of 84 votes (or about four percent of the vote) with 92 percent of precincts counted. Finally, in the 195th district, which covers Mantua and the lower western quadrant of North Philadelphia, Republican Adam Lang was trounced by Donna Bullock, a former senior staffer for City Council President Darrell Clarke.

These results were all predictable. Indeed, they were all basically foregone conclusions. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to learn from yesterday’s election. Such as… Read more »

Security Experts Pan Philly’s Pope Plan

Shutterstock.com

Shutterstock.com

Paul Nussbaum at the Inquirer had a good idea: ask big-time security experts what they think of the, uh, thorough, security and crowd control measures the city and its partners appear to be making for Pope Francis’s visit at the end of September.

Their thoughts, in a nutshell? This is overkill. By a lot. Drexel’s Scott White, a professor of homeland security and a former security official in Canada, scoffed to the Inquirer:

“What are we attempting to do here? Are we attempting to protect the pontiff, who already has – and always has – rings of security? Or are we attempting to protect one million or two million people?”

“We can’t protect 40 people in a cinema,” White said, referring to the spate of recent theater shootings. “How are we going to protect two million people?”

Edward Davis, the former Boston police commissioner, told the paper “it’s virtually impossible to set up a police perimeter around a crowd that large.” And Henry Willis, a security expert at RAND, told the Inquirer: “You have to do security in a way that doesn’t ruin the primary purpose of the event. You want to try to not disrupt the city too much.” Read more »

Why No Buses in the Pope “Traffic Zone?”

septa pope

One of the surprises to come out Wednesday’s City Hall press conference on the Pope visit was that private vehicles will be free to operate within the cordoned off Center City / University City “traffic zone.”

The going might not be easy. In sections of the traffic zone there’s certainly going to be a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists, and there’s no in-and-out. If you drive outside the zone, your car can’t come back in. But within the zone, theoretically at least, driving is permitted. On that, Mayor Michael Nutter was very clear.

So if private vehicles can operate within the zone, why not buses? Why not a temporary SEPTA route or routes, operating completely within the traffic zone? It would offer something to residents and visitors who struggle to travel by foot or bicycle. And while everyone expects the streets near the Parkway to be completely taken over by crowds, there’s a lot of roadway available in two square miles.

We wondered if SEPTA was rethinking its previously announced decision not to operate buses in Center City. The short answer? Nope. Read more »

How Kathleen Kane Fooled the Press

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane looks on before newly elected members of the Pennsylvania Legislature are sworn in, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Republicans who control both the Senate and House picked up additional seats in the November election. In the House, Republicans outnumber Democrats 119 to 84 and in the Senate, 30 to 20. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

There are few stories I regret writing more in my 18-year career as a professional journalist than this sycophantic 2013 profile of Kathleen Kane.

Take this tidbit:

“I don’t back down from anything,” she says at lunch. This West Side [of Scranton] toughness, wrapped up in a charming package, is a big part of the reason Kane has made such an impression both in Harrisburg and on voters. At 47, she’s confident but not-quite-cocky, and her tone (more than her actual agenda) is candid and bracing.

Kane has managed to create a sense that she’s the only one out there actually doing, while the rest of the political class stands still. And she has — perhaps intentionally, perhaps not — tapped into the fathoms-deep well of disgust that so many Pennsylvanians feel for the retrograde crew running the state. What Kane has come to represent — through her decisiveness, her biography and, yes, her gender — is an alternative to Pennsylvania’s go-slow status quo. You look at Kane and think: Maybe, just maybe, things could be different around here after all.

Ha. Haaaaaaaaaa. “Different.” Well, things are different, inasmuch as Kane’s brand of alleged corruption isn’t quite as venal as is the norm in Harrisburg. Kane’s failings are more Nixonian in nature: The enemies; the paranoia; the reported surveillance of suspect employees, the firing of a whistleblower. Read more »

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