Why Is Mayor Nutter Getting So Pissy About the Pope Visit?

No one realizes just how much responsibility and how little authority the city has.

Pope Francis | neneo / Shutterstock.com.  Mayor Nutter | Jeff Fusco

Pope Francis | neneo / Shutterstock.com. Mayor Nutter | Jeff Fusco

On Monday, Mayor Nutter faulted “little people with little pieces of information” for more or less inciting Pope panic in Philadelphia over the weekend.

On Tuesday, in a phone interview with Citified, Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief of staff and point man on the Pope visit, said one of the big problems is that people are getting too much information. “It’s just the opposite,” Gillison said when asked if the lack of logistical details about the Pope’s visit was undermining public confidence. “They’re getting literally too much, too early, and that’s what’s causing all the angst. They’re getting inundated with what could or could not be …”

So that’s the official line: If anything, the city has been too forthcoming, and the real problem here is an over-competitive press and the uncharacteristic emergence of a mile-wide twitchy streak in too many Philadelphians. Relax, the city says, we got this.

Unofficially, the story is a little more complicated. Nutter administration sources in a number of departments tell Citified that the city very much wants to release more information and to firm up logistical plans sooner, but is being prevented from doing so by the Secret Service, the World Meeting of Families and Vatican security officials. The sources say that this dynamic — which effectively prevents the city from communicating openly with its own citizens — is extremely frustrating, particularly given the growing public clamor for information.

Gillison balks a bit at that description. “If you want to say it’s frustrating, that’s one way to look at it. My way of looking at it is different … It’s important that people understand the city is part of a partnership. I am not frustrated with the Secret Service. They’ve been great partners. I’m not frustrated with the World Meeting of Families. They’ve been great partners,” Gillison said.

But Gillison prefaces all of that with a lengthy description of the many parties involved, and the many joint decisions that have to be made — which, he said, is a major departure from most big events the city has hosted, where City Hall is pretty much in the driver’s seat. He mentions the “21 or 23” subcommittees the Secret Service has established, and the “15 or 20 more” subcommittees the World Meeting of Families has. “Normally, I’m the only actor,” Gillison said. “Now I’ve got two other partners who all have 20 other committees that they’ve got on board.”

Add to that the sheer scale and unusual security complexities of this event and you’ve got, well, whatever it is we’ve got.

Gillison was a little muddled on the question of how much information the city ideally should be releasing, and on what schedule. At one point, he said of the Secret Service, “We’re trying to goad and push to get more information that can be pushed out, but in a way that is respectful.” Mostly, though, Gillison defended the city’s information-sharing, saying repeatedly the administration had released more information earlier than it has for past big events.

But this isn’t simply another Parkway concert, and multiple sources tell us that, if it actually were up to the city, more information — and, critically, more definitive information — would have been released already.

The politics of this have gotten pretty wretched in recent days for the mayor and his team. The city’s role is immense and vital, and yet, in reality, City Hall is calling very few of the big logistical shots – or at least those causing the most consternation among city residents. Transit. Road closures. Fences. Security perimeters. The city is the junior partner on all those calls. City residents, meanwhile, are naturally looking to City Hall for answers — answers that City Hall either doesn’t have or has been told it can’t yet provide.

And there’s nobody the mayor can share the blame with. The city can’t be an ungracious host and gripe openly about Vatican security or the Secret Service. City Council has no role here (all you hear from that quarter is some quiet schadenfreude over Nutter’s struggles). So it’s Nutter up there alone, pretty much. “No matter what you do you and what you say, it’s the mayor that’s going to be the one that’s held responsible,” Gillison said. “People are not listening to ‘we are a part of a partnership.’ They’re pretty much saying, ‘You guys are the ones running this thing.'”

Some logistical information has begun leaking out in a scattershot manner, which has done little to shore up public confidence in the city’s management of the events. That was inevitable, given the sheer number of personnel and agencies involved in this endeavor. But Gillison (and the mayor) blame the press for hyping the story. “I think a lot of the angst, especially over the weekend, was one media outlet trying to outdo another media outlet,” he said. Nutter clearly felt the same way at his Monday press conference. “When there’s official information to be released, we’ll release it,” he said then. Shame on the press, in other words, for trying to inform the public about a huge event that will impact most everyone who lives or works in greater Center City, and likely beyond.

Bashing the press is fine. Really. Less OK is the growing impression that City Hall is dismissive of the valid concerns the general public has about the impact of the papal visit. Example? Gillison told us: “We’re hearing not everybody can be satiated with the information they’re getting because they don’t know ‘How is is going to directly affect me?'” But there are countless serious questions that haven’t been addressed — publicly, at least — from accommodations for the disabled, to contingencies for city residents needing medical care, to the city’s own operating schedule that entire week, to name just a few.

The whole point of this post is that Nutter isn’t really in a position to answer those questions. Not yet, anyway. But it might help if the city could show a little more empathy for residents who, justifiably or not, are freaking out over what’s to come. His tone should be a little more “We’re in this together, we’re going to get through it, and it’s going to be great,” and a little less “Chill out, you freaks.”

Most critically, one hopes that Nutter and the city are representing residents’ interests as forcefully as possible in their discussions with event organizers and the security forces. There’s a balance to strike here, of course, and surely it’s a difficult one. Everybody wants the papal visit — which seems sure to include the attendance of many heads of state, in addition to Francis — to be completely violence-free. But we already know the Secret Service would have preferred the pilgrims to go without water bottles, so maybe their judgement shouldn’t be deferred to entirely.

Long term, barring some major meltdown, Nutter’s legacy will be just fine. There’s no indication he plans to run for public office again and — like a snowstorm where the plows are a little slow — logistical missteps don’t tend to linger that long in the public imagination. On the flip side, if the event is a smashing success, if the global spotlight shines on Philly and the city looks good in it, Nutter’s standing could be hugely enhanced. Well executed, it’s tough to beat an event like this for a mic drop. And while there’s understandable skepticism over the city’s preparation for this event at the moment, it’s worth remembering that this is a City Hall  team that has extensive experience successfully hosting major events.

It’s actually possible that Philadelphians will be forced to feel proud of their city when this is all said and done. God forbid.