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

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.