The Kenney Administration’s Trumpian Response to Our Latest DROP Exposé

In the wake of a Philly Mag story the city didn’t like, the mayor’s chief of staff has severely curtailed our ability to report on city government.

jim kenney cell phone

Photo by Matt Rourke/AP.

Mayor Jim Kenney has made his hatred for Donald Trump quite clear. He’s called him a “tyrant” who is trying to turn “the country into a dictatorship.” He’s called him a “fragile egomaniac.” He has, in not so many words, suggested that he might be Satan incarnate. But Kenney’s latest move is a page torn right out of Trump’s own playbook.

It began with a simple request on Tuesday evening, when I reached out to Karen Guss, the spokesperson for Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, for some information about regulations regarding recreational vehicles in the city.

Guss provided some helpful details. Then she referred me to Mike Dunn, the veteran KYW reporter-turned-senior deputy communications director for the City of Philadelphia, who she said would be able to help with other aspects of the RV laws.

But Dunn quickly apologized, explaining that the question I had for him was actually more of a Streets Department matter. He sent me over to Kelly Cofrancisco, the deputy communications director who deals with all things Streets.

This bouncing around to different departments is not unusual. It’s a big, heavily bureaucratic city, and what you think might be a simple question can turn out to be anything but. But in my years of experience dealing with the city and its related departments, things generally work pretty well when I’m trying to get a question answered for a story.

But that all changed on Wednesday morning, once my request rolled around to Cofrancisco.

“We have a new protocol for all Philly Mag press requests,” Cofrancisco wrote in an email. “They have to be placed by [Philly Mag editor-in-chief] Tom McGrath directly to our Chief of Staff Jim Engler. Once approved we can move forward.”

Did she mean just Streets Department requests? Nope. Any request for any information involving any city department, it turns out.

So, whether there’s a water main break at rush hour or a neighborhood that hasn’t had its trash picked up in three weeks, or if City Hall’s computers and websites have been crippled by a theoretical ransomware attack, I have to get in touch with my editor, who then has to get in touch with the mayor’s chief of staff, who then has to decide whether to approve the request, at which point the request will then be routed to the appropriate party, who will then research the request and get back to me.

I was puzzled. I really was. This was downright weird. I mean, sure, the mayor and I have had our differences — as well we should — but lately, I hadn’t dinged him too hard.

But it turns out that none of this was because of me.

After a couple of calls to City Hall and Philly Mag editors, it became quite clear that the reason for this major shift — a protocol that the magazine never experienced during the John Street or Michael Nutter mayoral administrations — was Ralph Cipriano’s fascinating, maddening, and downright damning exposé about a new way that city officials are using the highly controversial DROP program to waste taxpayer money.

Cipriano calls it the “triple dip,” and I’ll let his story speak for itself. It should outrage you — especially if you pay any taxes in Philadelphia.

Oh, one City Hall official explained to me that it wasn’t just the DROP story. It was, the official said, more of a cumulative thing based on the last year of Philly Mag’s coverage of the Kenney administration. (I’m just going to go ahead and point out here that the last year of our Kenney coverage included an endorsement of his opponent Anthony Williams in the May primary.)

But the DROP story was most certainly the “tipping point,” as the official put it.

McGrath says Engler called him last week to say he didn’t like the DROP story, which McGrath says Engler characterized as unfair and sensationalized. When McGrath defended the piece, he says Engler told him it would have an impact on the way the administration dealt with Philly Mag going forward.

“I’ve received plenty of angry phone calls from unhappy government officials over the years, but this is the first time anyone has created a policy specifically designed to impede our reporting,” McGrath says. “It not only strikes me as small and petulant, but dangerous. Their new policy seems to be that they’ll only deal with news organizations that don’t criticize them.”

On Wednesday afternoon, I reached out to Engler for comment on the city’s new policy — or, should I say that I reached out to McGrath to have him reach out to Engler.

“Considering the time and effort spent responding to recent Philadelphia Magazine stories, and the treatment that time and effort was given in those stories, we find it necessary to institute a new procedure for responding to requests from your organization,” emailed Engler in response. “We will make best efforts to respond in a timely manner, but please understand we field a high number of press requests every day.”

“We don’t mind — and in fact we expect — stories that look critically at the City’s policies and actions,” he continued. “But we do expect fairness, and recent coverage has clearly demonstrated that Philadelphia Magazine is more interested in sensationalizing issues rather than reporting them fairly. In light of this realization we have decided to adjust our procedure.”

So, petty retribution or responsible stewardship of the public trust? You be the judge.