Karen Heller: Is cure for Philadelphia Syndrome at hand?

Stephanie Singer is running for office in Phila. and says - get this - "I want to be the last elected city commissioner."
Stephanie Singer is running for office in Phila. and says - get this - "I want to be the last elected city commissioner."

Amid cronyism and incompetence, citizens accept mediocrity as a given. But recent events spark an ember of hope.

Posted: January 30, 2011

Which of these things is not like the other?

A. Stephanie Singer holds a doctorate in mathematics.

B. A former Haverford professor, Singer is the author of two books: Linearity, Symmetry, and Prediction in the Hydrogen Atom and Symmetry in Mechanics: A Gentle, Modern Introduction.

C. Singer is running for Philadelphia city commissioner.

The City Commissioners Office is the entrenched hackatorium that has been ruled by the House of Tartaglione - Borgias with attitude - since 1975.

"Why are you running for city commissioner?" I ask Singer. "You're way too qualified."

I'm serious.

"I think Philadelphia has a self-esteem problem," she says.

Oh. My. God, I think. It's happened. I've become a Philadelphian. I've embraced low expectations.

With Stockholm syndrome, hostages identify with their captors. With Philadelphia Syndrome, citizens accept mediocrity as a given.

"I've always wanted the job. Voting is the right from which all other rights follow," Singer tells me. "If our elections are free and fair, and believed to be free and fair, then it will be much easier for people to challenge entrenched incumbents in any office."

In a city where lineage is resume - DNA more crucial than any degree - we've come to nurse low expectations like watery beer.

You're born into a political family, or you toil many years for an elected official, like a vassal serving the lord. Then, upon the boss' retirement, you inherit the post because it's your feudal right.

Few public officials consider performing the job differently, because it's all they've known. Their entire lives have been confined not only to Philadelphia, but to city government as well.

Since they know no other way, public officials hold on to these jobs because they believe their skills aren't applicable elsewhere. (In Washington, they become lobbyists.) Consequently, change is anathema and reform like the flu.

A large part of Philadelphia Syndrome is surrendering hope that any positive change will occur except by accident. Or, barring that, federal indictment.

"I want to be the last elected city commissioner. I want election to be run in a separate office by a nonpartisan professional," says Singer, a ward leader and Democratic committeewoman and no stranger to politics. So the row office would be eliminated in four years? "I hope to work with the mayor and City Council and get it eliminated before that."

John Kromer wants to do this, too! The former city housing director is campaigning as "the last sheriff." He wants to transfer the delinquent-tax-collection system to the courts. Then he plans to shut down the office that has been a paragon of incompetence and cronyism - though, as Kromer rightly points out, only at the top.

There is historical precedent for Philadelphians running for office on a single issue dedicated to efficiency and reform. In the mid-19th century, Eli Kirk Price and Matthias Baldwin campaigned for the state Senate and House, respectively, to consolidate Center City and the rest of Philadelphia County into one entity. After "30 years of dithering," as the University of Pennsylvania's Mark Alan Hughes recounts, the two men accomplished their goal in one month in Harrisburg, by February 1854. They subsequently quit elected office after a single term.

If this could happen in the 1850s, why not now? How can our politicians become more antediluvian with time? The 19th century is shaming us.

Usually, members of City Council depart only in a pine box or handcuffs. But not this year! Council members are dropping like, well, DROP, the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. One of DROP's many problems is that it has deferred far too many retirements for too long. Meanwhile, it has enriched recipients in a manner more befitting a hedge-fund employee than someone paid by a city strapped for cash and cutting services.

Anna Verna, a city employee since 1951 and in Council since 1976, is retiring. So is Councilman Critter, Jack Kelly, the legislator who rarely speaks except about ducks. Donna Reed Miller is retiring. Joan Krajewski is retiring.

Joan and Marge Tartaglione are fellow Retirees for the Day, having left office for 24 hours to collect queenly DROP payouts. Joan, take Marge with you! Take the councilman from Aruba, Frank Rizzo, too. Take all those DROPouts!

This is like Christmas. Actually, it's way better than Christmas. You don't need to return anything.

City Council is a legislative body consisting of 17 members. They recently enjoyed a 41-day holiday from legislating, which is what they're elected to do.

Why are we paying so much for so many to not meet? So they can perform constituent service. That's what the rest of the government is supposed to do. As I've noted before, the whole system is predicated on things not working. Which is another symptom of Philadelphia Syndrome.

Larger than Philadelphia, Houston has 14 council members. Phoenix is bigger and maintains eight. Our Council candidates should take a page out of Singer's and Kromer's playbook: Run in order to eliminate the position.

We could dare to be ambitious. For years, Philadelphia had an organization with a measly budget and a pathetic record that worked in a dreary concrete pit where hope went to die.

And now we have the magnificent Phillies. We believe everything is possible, thwarting Philadelphia Syndrome at every turn.

Change may be coming, even in a town as resistant as this.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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