When I first heard the (now disputed) news that then-Councilman Mike Nutter had (allegedly) tried to fix tickets at Traffic Court, my first thought wasn’t about hypocrisy or injustice or anything like that.
Instead, it was: So what?
This isn’t the right reaction, I know, but mostly because of all the institutional signals involved. State officials disbanded Traffic Court because it was a beehive of corrupt officials making sure their friends never had to pay a speeding fine, and right now they’re prosecuting nine former judges from the court for their participation in the whole mess.
And this is normally the kind of thing I’d hate: One class of justice for the well-connected and another, harsher version for the 99 percent? Let’s go Occupy Wall Street!
Instead I’m … shrugging. And worried. What will Helen Ubiñas think of me?
But I guess for me it comes down to this: Power often comes with small perks — that’s why it is power. The ability to fix a traffic ticket for a friend? That’s a bit more than a perk, maybe, but not by much: It ranks maybe a half-step higher than getting the prized key to the executive washroom. If I were on the Council, would I be tempted to help a friend make a relatively small problem go away?
More than that, though, it seems that power gets abused and twisted in a lot of much bigger ways in this city, often without much in the way of opposition from the media or residents — sometimes it’s legal and sometimes it’s not. We know that policing here can often be a scandal. Same for the funding of our city schools. City Hall only just this year made it more or less illegal for elected and appointed officials to take palm-greasing gifts; Harrisburg, despite massive embarrassment by a few Philadelphia Democrats, can’t force the same kind of discipline on itself.
And haven’t we all noticed that if Mayor Nutter is, by many accounts, one of the most ethical Philly mayors in recent history, he’s also the one who has had the hardest time getting Council to sign onto his agenda? Maybe he could use a few lessons in scratching backs and doing favors.
Let’s face it: The democratic processes that supposedly run this city often feel like a tiny bit of the real story — a bit of iceberg, with all the real machinations looming beneath the surface, out of sight of the regular citizens, and almost certainly without benefitting them.
And in the shadow of all that wrong-doing and self-dealing and dirty work, we’re given what as a scapegoat: A few fixed traffic tickets?
Understand, authorities were right dismantle the court: Ticket-fixing had become so widespread that the corruption was the court’s defining feature, not simply an unfortunate wrinkle.
Still, given what we know — and suspect — about this city, a ticket-fixing scandal feels a bit like having Al Capone paraded before us on tax evasion charges. It’s … not that satisfying.
This is not the defense Mayor Nutter wants (and again, he may not even need it) but that’s Philly for you. It’s hard to get worked up about hors d’oeuvres when you know there’s probably a big, juicy steak waiting for you out there. Traffic tickets? We talkin’ about traffic tickets? I wish I could get worked up about them. But I can’t.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.