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

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.”