Mayor Kenney, Don’t Shut Out the Press

Owens: The Mayor's Office has declared it will no longer comment on questions about the leadership of an appointee — and this isn't the administration's only anti-transparency stance.

Jim Kenney. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Jim Kenney. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Last week, Mayor Jim Kenney put up a blockade between his office and the press regarding what has turned out to be one of his most controversial appointments. Nellie Fitzpatrick, the director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, has been called upon to step down by various social justice organizations within Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community and communities of color for what they contend is Fitzpatrick’s “failure to adequately address the blatant anti-blackness, racism, and classism that exists in the Gayborhood.”

On November 30th, a petition was created by an activist calling for Kenney to replace Fitzpatrick with a community member they believed could “speak directly to intersectionality and address racial bias within LGBT spaces which the current director has been unable to do.” As I reported on this story for G Philly, I requested a statement from the Mayor’s Office and received the following:

“We understand that there is a small core of activists who would like to see new leadership, but it is clear to us from last month’s PCHR hearing that the LGBT community is by and large pleased with Nellie’s performance. To that end, from this point forward, we will no longer be commenting on the leadership of the LGBT Affairs Office. Given the challenges the LGBT community and communities of color are facing as a result of the presidential election, the administration is spending its energy focused on how to ensure we maintain the gains and protections the LGBT community and communities of color saw under President Obama.”

I found some of the language condescending and dismissive, especially in describing more than 150 signatories of the petition as a “small core of activists.” These activists are black and brown LGBTQ community members who have a legitimate right to disagree with the direction of an office that is supposed to represent them.

What stood out to me the most, however, was this staunch declaration: “… from this point forward, we will no longer be commenting on the leadership of the LGBT Affairs Office.”

Excuse me? How does a first-term mayor who is closing in on just one year in office make the decision that he will no longer address concerns about the leadership of one of his appointees?

Disappointed in this decision, I reached out directly to the mayor via Twitter on both of his accounts. Although he often dislikes talking to reporters, it’s clear that the mayor has never had a problem speaking his mind on social media.

I never heard back. Our highest-ranking city official has apparently decided that, for all intents and purposes, he will no longer speak to the press about one of his appointees — and that is final. At the end of the day, whether you like the press or not, journalists have a right, and a duty, to hold elected officials and their agencies accountable to the taxpayers they represent. That is how democracy works.

But this isn’t the first time Kenney has had an issue with transparency. Pennsylvania has had a Right-to-Know law, which allows citizens greater access to public documents and other important information from their local governments, since 2008. But the mayor has already shown that he’s willing to put up barriers to the press from accessing information they’re entitled to.

Earlier this year, Dustin Slaughter, a contributing journalist for Newsworks, wrote about how Kenney’s administration was “not off to a great start” on responding to Right-to-Know requests:

“My attempt this month to begin auditing 34 city agencies’ handling of Right-to-Know requests, from the beginning of the Nutter administration to the present, quickly went sideways. First, Assistant City Solicitor Robert Kieffer responded with a six-page letter chock full of serpentine legalese that described my original request as “insufficiently specific”; that agency logs, if released, would be “likely to jeopardize or threaten public safety”; and that the records relate to criminal and noncriminal investigations. His office in the same breath released heavily redacted logs from 11 of the 34 agencies. These redactions rendered the spreadsheets useless.

Nutter redux, anyone?”

Slaughter references former mayor Michael Nutter at the end of his article because of the Nutter administration’s two-faced policy of voluntarily releasing open data sets while making it difficult for the press to obtain other records. As a councilman, Kenney was critical of Nutter for that hypocrisy: “It has evolved from transparency to translucency. It’s like putting Vaseline on glasses. You can see the light, but you can’t see what you’re looking at.”

But now Kenney looks hypocritical himself. Earlier this year, the Office of Open Records in Harrisburg confirmed that the Kenney administration had not requested any training sessions. Kenney also has been reluctant to allow the public to access specific details on police units involved in complaints that would hold officers more accountable. It took a news report calling Kenney out in order for a mayoral spokeswoman to reassure the press that district and unit information contained in police complaints would remain public information. None of this is progressive.

Now more than ever, we are living in a nation where the vulnerability of diverse communities has worsened. After president-elect Donald Trump’s election, there has been a spate of alleged hate crimes reported that affect people of color and LGBTQ community members. Yet, even before this election, LGBTQ Philadelphians of color had already been exposed to levels of discrimination and racism that went unchecked for far too long. The leadership in the Office of LGBT Affairs did not prioritize Gayborhood racism, saying two weeks before a video surfaced of ICandy owner Darryl DePiano referring to a black employee with a racial slur that “Gayborhood business owners genuinely want to address the community’s concerns and to ensure that everyone feels safe and welcome.” It’s hard for vulnerable populations in the city to not question the decisions made by an appointee who has missed the mark while assessing the severity of prior violations.

That’s exactly why the Mayor’s Office — even on the smallest scale — should not deny the press access to information that is vital to the LGBTQ community and Philadelphians overall. When the mayor chooses not to speak about the leadership of the Office of LGBT Affairs, he is denying Philadelphians their right to question how our taxpayer dollars are being allocated and keep track of the status of their concerns.

Gayborhood racism is a real problem. Those in the mayor’s administration tasked with handling this sensitive matter should not be guarded from those who feel the most targeted.