After a rough two years, Camden's mayor looks to solutions

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd at her City Hall office with Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson. Crime and education will be the primary focus the second half of the term, Redd says.
Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd at her City Hall office with Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson. Crime and education will be the primary focus the second half of the term, Redd says. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2012

Dana L. Redd could do without another two years like the ones that began her term as mayor of Camden.

Rising crime, failing schools, revenue shortfalls, public employee layoffs, dissension among police and residents over a plan to abolish the city police in favor of a new countywide force: It's been one crisis after another.

"My first two years were like four years condensed because we've had so many issues," says Redd, 42, a Democrat and former state senator who lives in the city's Fairview section.

Redd gives herself a rating of 9.5 on a scale of 10.

"I'm sure others will disagree," she acknowledges, "but they don't know the inside story."

Redd wants to woo the middle class to Camden to save the city from its unsustainable financial situation. But it must first find new solutions to old problems.

"If we continue to do what we've always done, we'll continue to have what we always have gotten," Redd said.

With a crime rate that ranks it among the nation's most dangerous cities, more than one in three of its 77,000 residents living in poverty, and one in five unemployed, Camden is short on selling points for those looking to buy a house or start a business.

"We have to deal with public safety in order to bring in private investors and to attract the middle-class base," Redd said Thursday in an interview to discuss her first years as Camden's leader. "We're going to be very aggressive."

Crime and education will be her primary focus, she says.

Redd is committed to creating a Camden County police force, whose metro division would replace the current city department. Supporters of the controversial plan say the model would reduce salaries and benefits and permit the hiring of more officers.

Skeptics - including residents, police, and activists - say the proposed regionalization is simply a union-busting move. A parade of speakers at recent council meetings have asked to have the topic put to a referendum.

Asked if the issue should be decided by residents, the self-described loner said simply: "They've elected me to do a job on their behalf."

On Thursday, Redd stood by Gov. Christie as he signed the Urban Hope Act, which created a pilot program for private companies to construct and operate up to four taxpayer-funded "renaissance schools" in Camden.

Many families leave because they want a better education for their children, said Redd, a Camden native who attended Catholic schools. In addition to improving existing schools, she hopes to give parents new options.

"I'm excited to see what she's actually going to do aside from . . . appoint school board members," board member Sean Brown said of Redd's education initiatives.

Her goals for the rest of her term are viewed with some cynicism by those who cite earlier projects that were delayed or lacked meaningful community input.

"People are brought to the table once very important decisions have been made," Brown said. "That's very frustrating."

Redd said that she would hold a "community congress" of the grassroots organizations in a few weeks and that she hopes they can devise a strategy to work together, especially to apply for state or federal funds.

Asked about their relationship with the mayor, some of the key players in the nonprofit community declined to comment on the record or they used measured words.

"We like working with the mayor . . . but as always, we would like to see things move more smoothly," said Camden Community Development Association executive director Liza Nolan. "Things are difficult to get done in the city."

City Council President Frank Moran did not return numerous calls for comment.

The administration - especially chief of staff Novella Hinson - has created an atmosphere of intimidation and is overcontrolling, some say. Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, for example, may not speak publicly, unlike his counterpart in Philadelphia.

"It's not unusual to have a strong chief of staff," Redd said. "That's the paradigm in government."

If there is tension, she said, it's more about "customer service" issues in short-staffed departments, something she says she hopes to solve through technology. Redd believes she has a good relationship with most departments.

Her support in the community is divided, she acknowledges. People need to be patient with her, she said.

"What I've started to do in the last two years is start to lay a foundation for recovery," she said.

When she came into office, Redd's priority was to make City Hall more functional, "to break down the silos that existed between different departments and forming collaborative groups," she said.

She started her Clean Campaign and pushed to get final funding for the city's police surveillance network, which now has 81 cameras.

But in October 2010, Redd learned that to close a $26.5 million budget gap she would have to lay off hundreds of city employees, including nearly half the police force. (Through grants, she has rehired many officers.)

Since then, the issue of public safety has consumed her term, not just in dealing with layoffs but also with escalating crime. The city had 49 homicides in 2011, a 25 percent increase over the prior year. Aggravated assaults and burglaries also were up.

Consoling families in a city ripped apart by violence is not easy for Redd. Her parents died when she was 8 in what was described by police as a murder-suicide initiated by her father.

"Just listening to the wailing of a wife who's lost her husband," she said. "It was reminiscent of what I went through as a child listening to my grandmother wail at the loss of her only daughter."

Most of Camden's problems have the same root cause: poverty and a resulting lack of tax revenue to provide improved city services.

"She probably has the most difficult job in America," said Msgr. Michael Doyle, of Camden's Sacred Heart Church, a longtime mentor to Redd. "She doesn't have the tax base. That's the problem."

More than half the properties in the city do not pay taxes. Of Camden's proposed $158 million budget for 2012, only $23 million is expected from local taxes.

This year, Camden's state aid is $107.4 million. But Christie has warned that the city will receive less money each year.

Camden's Business Growth and Development Team was created last year to aid businesses interested in opening in the city. Its goal is to lead Camden toward sustainability through new revenue. Yet only those with roots in Camden have made the short list of businesses the city added this year.

The team also helped Camden make use of the state's Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which allows cities to hold special tax sales or use eminent domain to turn decrepit properties over for redevelopment.

With a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato in hand, Redd is in and out of meetings all day. Her staff describes her as a hard worker who considers a 14-hour schedule light. On weekends, she visits city churches, probably her strongest source of support.

"I'm going to be Dana one way or another. . . . My style might be a little bit different than most politicians," said the unmarried Redd, who starts most public events with a prayer.

With half a term yet to serve, Redd knows she wants to run again. She cites a presidential role model.

"President Clinton spent his first term cleaning up government," Redd says. "The second term, in year five, was when prosperity hit."

Those quick to judge her, say her allies, should consider what Redd inherited.

"You have to look at her in the conditions she is in," Doyle said.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or @InqCVargas on Twitter.

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