Nutter's record mixed on ethics and reform

Mayor Nutter at a luncheon yesterday at the Loews Hotel.
Mayor Nutter at a luncheon yesterday at the Loews Hotel.
Posted: January 26, 2011

IT WAS a memorable image from Mayor Nutter's 2007 campaign - a television ad that showed a cartoon hand ripping off the top of City Hall and scattering bodies on the street, while a booming voice pledged to "throw out the bums in City Hall, who have been ripping us off for years."

It's been four years since Nutter ran as a reform candidate. What is his mayoral record so far on ethics and government reform? And did he really kick out all those bums?

On ethics and reform, Nutter's record is mixed. He has successfully beefed up his ethics staff and sought tough, new transparency rules. But he has shown less progress on issues that pit him against the city's Democratic establishment - like establishing rules of conduct for elected officials and their staffs or working to abolish the city's elected row offices, which critics say are redundant.

"I think he's made ethics a higher priority and more of a reality in City Hall than any mayor I can remember," said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

But Stalberg added: "The reality is that I think Mayor Nutter is both reform-oriented and a ward leader. And that pulls you in two different directions."

Changes realized

Yesterday, Nutter signed a series of executive orders that toughen the ethics rules for the city employees under his control. The orders prohibit nepotism, strengthen the ban on accepting gifts and tighten the rules governing outside employment.

"I've worked to end the pay-to-play culture in this government," Nutter said at a City Hall news conference.

Since taking office in 2008, Nutter - who was a consistent reform advocate during his 14 years on City Council - has worked to provide a more ethical City Hall.

He installed a chief integrity officer to monitor his staff, increased funding for the city Inspector General's Office, started publicizing who gets tickets to the mayor's box and worked with Council to pass legislation requiring lobbyists to register with the city.

To show he means business, Nutter has put two tough former prosecutors in the top ethics jobs in his administration. Inspector General Amy Kurland and Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman were both longtime assistant U.S. attorneys, who worked on the team that prosecuted former city Treasurer Corey Kemp and others in the corruption case that exploded after an FBI bug was found in then-mayor John Street's office in 2003.

Under Nutter, Kurland has developed cases that have led to the firing of 105 employees. Markman has set up a website about the ethics rules that cover employees, boards and commissions, as well as vendors. And together they have schooled city workers on how to follow city ethics rules.

"Our job is to serve the public," said Markman. "The public ought to get their money's worth. Not everybody is Carl Greene," the disgraced former executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Goals that fell short

But Nutter has come up short on some of his goals to clean up city government. For example, the new rules on gifts and nepotism that he set up this week don't apply to elected officials or their staffers.

"Yes, it's a step forward and it's nice that part of the workforce is covered, but the real abuses occur in the independently elected row offices where . . . patronage and nepotism run rampant," said the Committee of Seventy's vice president, Ellen Kaplan.

Another piece of legislation reformers would like to see is a shift in campaign-finance rules so that fundraising limits are set by election cycle rather than the current calendar-year model, which critics say favors incumbents. Nutter would not commit to such a change, saying that the current fundraising limits - which he supported as a councilman - are the toughest in the city's history.

"At the moment, I don't necessarily think the change needs to happen," Nutter said. "We've taken a tremendous amount of money out of the whole political system with the limits that we have."

And some question whether Nutter has shown enough support for the Board of Ethics. During his budget cuts, Nutter reduced the board's funding, and a recent report from the city controller noted that a "lack of resources could imperil the board's mission."

Nutter also has not detailed how he will pay for the new lobbyist-registration requirements that the board will enforce, though he said he would make sure it can enforce the new law.

"There was no department or agency that was immune from taking some cut," he said. "We will work with the Board of Ethics to make sure they enforce [the lobbying registration.]"

Political pushback

Nutter bristled yesterday when asked why he couldn't get Council to pass legislation on employee conduct that would cover all city workers.

"You'll have to ask Council about that," he said, adding that in the absence of Council action, he was going to set up rules for the employees under his control.

Nutter has successfully pushed parts of his reform agenda, but he has mostly stalled when dealing with the city's Democratic elected officials, avoiding confrontation.

"My concern is that [in] the political process, the people that control the row offices, the party structure that controls the row offices, [Nutter has] basically befriended them rather than gone to war with them," said Phil Goldsmith, who served as managing director under Street.

Does this make it hard to push for lasting legislative reform or make changes to government structure?

Reformers for years have called for the elimination of the city's elected row offices, arguing that they are inefficient operations rife with political patronage.

Of the four offices typically targeted by reformers - the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the Sheriff, the Register of Wills and city commissioners - Nutter has moved to abolish the clerk's office. But that came after the First Judicial District took over most of the office's functions, at the direction of state Chief Justice Ronald Castille.

"You might say the Clerk of Quarter Sessions was a big success, but that was handed to him as a resignation [by clerk Vivian Miller, who retired]," said former city controller candidate Brett Mandel, a frequent critic of the mayor.

Now there's a spotlight on the Sheriff's Office, as the city controller seeks to do a forensic audit of the office's finances. And the city commissioners have been taking heat from the Committee of Seventy, since the announcement that election official Renee Tartaglione - daughter of City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione - would resign for blatantly violating city ethics rules.

Nutter said he would work with the next elected sheriff "with the perspective that the office needs to go away." But he said any changes to the commissioners needed further review.

"I think there have been no issues with the central responsibilities of the city commissioners," Nutter said.

Meanwhile, a major part of Nutter's re-election strategy is lining up endorsements from the city's Democratic establishment, like the city's congressional delegation, District Attorney Seth Williams and Controller Alan Butkovitz.

"The first foray into his re-election was the announcement that the party boss and the congressional delegation [were endorsing him]," said Mandel. "Getting re-elected for him is much more of an inside game."

Still, Nutter said he's not ruled by party politics when it comes to continuing his longtime mission of government reform.

"If something has to be done or [I have to] make a decision, I'm not going to say I'm not cognizant of the politics," he said, "but this job is about making tough choices."

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