Daily News Documents Mayor Nutter’s Betrayal of Transparency Promises

Mayor Nutter promised transparency for City Hall. He hasn't delivered. And it was his choice.

If it wasn’t already obvious, it should be after William Bender’s barn-burning takedown in Monday’s Daily News: Mayor Nutter has betrayed his early promise, has disappointed many of the Philadelphians who hoped and believed, really believed, that he could breathe reform into the city’s sclerotic government, bring light and disinfectant to the grimey, hidebound corners of the city’s politics.

Simply put: He hasn’t. At this stage of his mayoral career, it’s unlikely that he will.

To be fair, Mayor Nutter has faced enormous challenges. He arrived in office around the same time the Great Recession broke out, and that’s the kind of thing that can put a Big Agenda on hold. For much of his record, Nutter can and should be graded on a curve.

But circumstances have had no bearing on Nutter’s failure to deliver on one of his biggest early promises: To open City Hall to sunlight and transparency. He had a choice: Open or closed. He told the world he’d act openly. He hasn’t. That’s entirely in his hands.

Bender quoted the mayor speaking at his 2008 inaugural: “There is nothing that government does that cannot be done ethically and transparently. Nothing.”

But the exceptions are numerous, Bender noted:

Except, we now know, pitching municipal bonds to investors. And settling lawsuits. And, sometimes, budget briefings with City Council. Also, sheriff’s sales and pension payments aren’t entirely transparent. Neither are zoning appeals. Nor, in some cases, the way taxpayer-funded grants are doled out. And the mayor’s past daily calendars are a closely guarded secret. Even elevator records have been deemed off-limits to the public.

In other words: It’s impossible for a regular citizen of Philadelphia to get an inside look at how local government works and who benefits from it.

Now: The mayor’s defenders point out — rightly — that he appointed a Chief Data Officer, and that City Hall has thus released data sets that have helped the public and journalists gain a better understanding of City Hall’s workings. Fair enough.

But government isn’t transparent just because it chooses to release a bit more information to the public than the public had before. Government is transparent when — and only when — it routinely gives up records and information that it didn’t choose to release, but which the public seeks anyway. By that standard, Nutter has failed.

What was remarkable about Monday’s Daily News story is the number of Philadelphia journalists who were willing to put their objections on the record. Reporters from City Paper, Axis Philly and WHYY, as well as former journalists at the Inquirer, Daily News and Associated Press, all made their complaints known, as did representatives from good government groups like the Committee of Seventy and the Sunlight Foundation. That’s a widespread display of discontent.

But it would be a mistake to see this problem as one of journalists bitching about their lack of access. Transparency helps the public understand, say, where City Hall might’ve failed in June’s deadly demolition collapse of the Salvation Army on Market Street. It can help the public understand the impact of changes to tax policy. And it can help the public decide if new leadership is needed to solve intractable problems.

Mayor Nutter could’ve been on the right side of these issues. He created the expectation that he would be. He hasn’t. It’s naive to expect him to change, at this point, yet here’s hoping he will. It’s not too late for him to secure a brighter legacy.