The Not-So-Transparent Mayor

The Nutter administration seems to share the Obama administration's disdain for the press.

On Independence Day, civil libertarians marched through the streets of Philadelphia to protest domestic spying by the National Security Agency. To many, recent revelations of government surveillance — your phone calls, your Gchats, even your snail mail — have been no more disturbing than the Obama administration’s aggressive attempt to quash the reporting that led to the revelations in the first place, through unprecedented prosecution of leakers and actual snooping on journalists.

Nothing so brazen is happening in Philly. But the manner in which the Nutter administration routinely stiff-arms the press is becoming troubling.

Take the most high-profile recent example: the building collapse on 22nd and Market. In a show of accountability immediately after the tragedy, Nutter announced the city was inspecting 300 building sites. That’s great, but where are they? As an editorial in yesterday’s Inky points out, we’re not allowed to know. The piece also criticized the administration for, among other things, refusing to reveal information concerning work demo man Sean Benschop was contracted to do for the city. (You know, the guy Philadelphia has also charged with six counts of involuntary manslaughter.)

Perhaps the city’s most bizarre display of opacity regarding the collapse concerns a video message site inspector Ron Wagenhoffer left on his phone before committing suicide. First, NBC 10 reported that he took responsibility for the collapse, claiming “it was my fault.” Later, the mayor’s spokesman Mark McDonald vehemently denied the report, claiming that Wagenhoffer in fact said “it wasn’t my fault” in one of two videos he recorded. (NBC 10 is standing by its story.)

At the time, when I called McDonald to ask him what he had seen, he repeatedly refused to give me any more information about the content of the videos, citing the privacy of the family. If the city wants to set the record straight and avoid the appearance that it’s hiding something, it should release the full videos. If it truly wants to respect the privacy of the family, perhaps it shouldn’t have gotten involved the first place.

On a more benign but still emblematic note, it’s a royal pain in the ass to figure out important financial information about public officials in Philadelphia — like what gifts they’re receiving. To access those records, you need to show up to a cluttered room on the first floor of City Hall, fill out a bunch of forms by hand, and then wait a couple days for paper copies of the records, which you’ll have to pick up again in person. (The administration says it’s putting these records online sometime this summer.) After I did so, I filed a piece that included this piece of information:

Mayor Michael Nutter received one pen from the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard worth $2,950 and another from the U.S. Conference of Mayors worth $1,800. Nutter’s spokesman says they are stored away in some hard-to-find place and that the Mayor will stick to his own trusty quill, thank you.

The next day, I received a voicemail from Mr. McDonald telling me he was “pissed off” with my “snarky” tone and that the pen was not in fact “hard to find.” When I asked him where it was located, he said he didn’t know, but that someone in the administration did. He also added that none of this was meant to have a “chilling effect.”

Well, talk to any journalist in Philadelphia who deals with the city on a routine basis and they’ll confirm that relations between the press and the administration can at times be rather chilly. Newsworks reporter Holly Otterbein, speaking at a panel in March, gave the Nutter administration a “B-” for transparency, adding that she felt “record officers sometimes seem to make denials or request for delays in bad faith.”

Arcane record-keeping aside, Nutter set another low mark for his critique of Philly Mag’s “Being White in Philly” March cover story, which he asked the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to condemn for “reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations.” Like many of my colleagues, I did not like the piece we published. Regardless of the article’s quality, however, calling a publication’s First Amendment rights into question was warrantless, and frankly, pretty embarrassing.

To be sure, the Nutter administration deserves praise for certain kinds of transparency. It’s made public several dozen crucial datasets, from crime statistics to its new AVI property valuations, and has been lauded for its general approach to open data. And of course, it’s not just Nutter who can be chilly. The first time I ever met District Attorney Seth Williams, at an event at Tattooed Mom in January, I had been a reporter in Philly for all of one month. When I introduced myself, the first words out of his mouth were “Fuck Philly Mag.” (He wasn’t happy with a story the magazine had written about him a few months before I started working there.)

Vowing to break from the corruption of the Street administration, Nutter came into office pledging honesty and transparency. That’s partly why his recent information blockade is disappointing. That said, I don’t think Nutter is covering up massive corruption, and I haven’t encountered any reporters who think so either. Rather — and this brings us back to Obama — he seems to have a haughty distain for the press and its occasional sensationalism. The professed technocracy of his administration, along with its rejection of interest-group politics — two traits Nutter’s staff shares with its counterparts in the White House — seems to have led to a belief that it’s best not to let reporters, and thus, the public, know exactly what brilliant schemes it’s cooking up.