Bumpy start behind, Councilman Bill Green's profile grows

Bill Green's standing among Council colleagues has grown over 22 months, but tensions between Green and the mayor are increasingly obvious.
Bill Green's standing among Council colleagues has grown over 22 months, but tensions between Green and the mayor are increasingly obvious.
Posted: October 12, 2009

There's this hot shot in City Hall sucking up all the oxygen these days. You know the type - says he's a reformer, has big legislative plans and City Council is backing his ideas.

No, it's not Mayor Nutter.

After spending much of his first year in office a virtual pariah, Councilman Bill Green is now taking center stage in City Council, just as Nutter is struggling to maintain relationships with his former colleagues.

"I honestly believe we just got to know each other," Green said last week of his improved partnership with fellow Council members.

Thursday was a big day for Green. With the overwhelming support of his Council colleagues, he achieved final passage of a bill to overhaul dumpster regulations and introduced legislation to abolish the Board of Revision of Taxes.

The slam-dunk session proved that after a rough first year, Green has successfully made allies and mended fences. And along the way, Council has become reinvigorated as a political body.

"I think he's done a better job of reaching out to members and I think the members have a better appreciation of what he brings to the table," said former Managing Director Phil Goldsmith. "They see someone who does his homework. He's growing in the job and sees he can't get anything done without eight people standing with him."

Meanwhile, Nutter's ties with Council have grown increasingly strained. He bumped heads with members during a contentious budget process and lately some members have been complaining about being left out of decision-making.

Once-close allies are now publicly questioning the mayor. Councilman Jim Kenney, long considered one of Nutter's closest partners on Council, last week complained that he learned of a temporary BRT reform in the newspapers.

"I think part of the problem here is the lack of communication," Kenney said. "I don't know what is going on. I'm at a loss to know what the strategy is."

Whatever it is, Nutter's Council strategy does not seem to include Green. While the similarities between the two are obvious - both are reform-minded policy wonks who are quick to make a sarcastic remark - they have never been close.

The tension between the duo has become even more visible as Green's profile has grown.

Green's BRT legislation did not include everything Nutter wanted in a reform bill, but the mayor offered his support. Still, talking to reporters, he made sure to note that he first introduced BRT reform in 2002. He also thanked every Council member with a leadership position - five in all - before mentioning Green.

Asked about his relationship with Green, Nutter said: "It's a good, straightforward, honest, working relationship."

Nutter said that the bruising financial year has been hard on everyone in City Hall, but also insisted he has a strong relationship with Council.

"We, the city and its elected officials, whether local or state, have had a very tough year," Nutter said. "We've had to make some very tough decisions because of this economic crisis. It has created an environment where, because of budgetary challenges, there will be some tensions."

Green, 44, a lawyer with experience in business and finance, spent much of his first year in office out of sync with his colleagues.

At his first Council session he introduced legislation to remove elected officials from the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan - a move that instantly offended several Council members enrolled in the plan.

After that, most of Green's early legislative efforts stalled. But gradually he began working with his colleagues, seeking input before taking action.

"I came on Council and was used to a private sector pace. I was probably more aggressive and brash than I should have been and introduced the DROP bill my first week," Green said. "And so, I think my approach has changed in terms of the legislation I introduce. The first year it was just me and the freshmen and now we try to build a consensus before we introduce legislation."

Green has slowly gained respect from many colleagues over the last 22 months.

During the 2008 budget hearings, he questioned the mayor's budget projections, raising concerns that they were too optimistic, a critique that now seems prescient.

And late last year, when Nutter threatened to close eight libraries, Green led the charge to stop him. Armed with a a rule that requires Council approval to close buildings, Green won.

But the partnership between Green and Council really solidified this spring, when Council stood against Nutter's proposal to temporarily raise property taxes. Council instead lobbied for an extended sales-tax hike. Their plan prevailed.

Kenney, a frequent critic of Green when he first arrived on Council, acknowledged that Green is doing substantive work.

"I think he's gotten better," Kenney said. "He stopped the fight-picking stuff. He's no dummy and he's got a very good staff."

But Green's relationship with Nutter has not warmed. And, of course, many of Green's wins - the libraries, this year's budget - were political losses for Nutter.

Green said that he and the mayor have a working relationship.

"I am told by my colleagues that the mayor is a loner," Green said. "I don't know him well enough to know if that's true or not."

Council observers note the obvious similarities between Nutter and Green. Green sits in Nutter's old chair in City Council. He has staked out a claim on government reform and quality-of-life issues - both key interests of Nutter's. And like Nutter, Green is known for his aggressive interrogation style at budget hearings.

"Green is really doing what Michael Nutter did as a Councilman, which is what I find the irony of the situation," said Goldsmith.

Rumors regularly pop up that Green is considering running against Nutter for mayor in 2011. But Green said that that is not the case.

"I've told him that I don't intend to run," Green said.

For most of his first year as mayor, Nutter got along famously with Council. After serving 14 years as a councilman, he took office in 2008, promising a new era of transparency and collaboration with the legislators.

But as the city's finances soured, so did their relationship. And it was Nutter's criticism of Council members' city-issued cars and the DROP retirement perk last spring that really got Council's backs up.

"I think that the blow that really created that friction was when the mayor criticized them publicly for cars and the DROP at a time when he was going to them for budget approval," said Goldsmith. "You don't criticize people whose hand you want to feed you."

Observers point out that Nutter is experiencing the challenges of serving in the city's executive branch.

"You've got to deal with Council," said political consultant Larry Ceisler. "It's just a reality of the situation. It's sort of mind-boggling that being a member of that body for so many years, he's had problems dealing with the dynamics of it."

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