Tweet from Nutter’s aide was a “matter of ethics”

Mark McDonald, the mayor's press secretary, spent 21 years as a Daily News reporter.
Mark McDonald, the mayor's press secretary, spent 21 years as a Daily News reporter.
Posted: May 02, 2012

After my column ran last Thursday about the latest victims of Philadelphia parking outrages, I got a call telling me to check out a tweet from Mark McDonald, the mayor’s press secretary.

At 2:55 p.m. that day, here’s what McDonald sent out to his 1,006 Twitter followers:

“If reporter has let’s say 150 agency violations, do you disclose that as you time after time pound said agency with your commentary?”

What the heck?

That morning, I had published, for the 14th time in nine months, a column about the crazy treatment of some unlucky drivers by employees of the Philadelphia Parking Authority and its sister agency, the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication (BAA).

And now here was the mayor’s press secretary, seemingly hinting that I have a personal problem with parking tickets, when in fact I’m paid up in full and have been for years. And why would it be his business anyway?

When I got McDonald on the phone, he was vague, neither confirming nor denying that his snarky tweet was about me. It merely posed a “hypothetical” question, he said, concerning “a matter of ethics.”

As if, out of the blue, he was indulging a post-lunch craving to engage in a little high-toned ethics debate with 1,006 Twitter followers.

I asked, several times, what he was implying.

“I’d wonder,” he finally said, “about the ethics of a reporter who would have an animus toward a particular agency if that reporter had, for example, a lot of L&I violations for maybe property-maintenance issues. And I’d wonder how readers would respond to [the reporter’s] writing, under the circumstances. I think it is something that maybe that person should disclose. It’s a matter of ethics.”

Ethics? Interesting word. Parking records are private. If McDonald were tweeting about my parking record, how did he get that information? And what might it say about a mayoral administration if the price of a citizen’s criticism of a government agency is public exposure of one’s private city records, no matter how cagey the reference?

I asked McDonald how he got hold of my parking-ticket records and suggested that maybe he was the one with an ethical problem. Suddenly his caginess evaporated. “I’m not talking to you about this,” he said.

“This is off the record!”

Now that’s funny. Before McDonald went to work for the mayor, he spent 21 years as a Daily News reporter. He knows better than anyone that “off-the-record” is something you establish before the conversation, not afterward. When I reminded him of that, he hung up on me.

Later, he reiterated in an email that his tweet mentioned neither me nor tickets. When pressed, he wrote, “I tweeted a hypothetical. You made reference to your situation. I did not.”

So why did he hang up on me? Never mind. But here are the facts:

My husband and I have lived in Philly a long time. Since December 1996, we’ve gotten about one ticket a month on our (lone) car. We consider them a cost of city living.

Some of the tickets were my husband’s, some were mine, and we paid them all. Because here’s the thing: We deserved them.

We timed out at parking meters, or overstayed our welcome in restricted areas, or parked too close to hydrants in our car-choked neighborhood.

The worst violation was the one I committed when my daughter was a tot and I parked for five minutes in a handicapped space outside her school. She’d left her hat at home that morning and I wanted to hold an umbrella over her as she dashed inside.

When I returned, there was the $300 ticket, an appropriate comeuppance for my thoughtlessness toward the disabled. The next time my kid forgot her hat on a rainy school day, trust me, I let her get soaked.

Only twice that I can recall did the PPA write tickets I thought were in error. When I appealed them to the BAA, the hearing examiner agreed, and the tickets were tossed. Further, on four separate occasions, I’ve received surprise refunds from the PPA for tickets or fines that I didn’t even know I’d overpaid.

So the truth is, my personal experiences with the PPA and the BAA have been fair. But what I never realized, until I wrote last summer about a Good Samaritan named George Echenhofer, is how often the PPA and the BAA are unfair to other people.

In Echenhofer’s case, he got nailed for parking in a loading zone while he rendered aid to a car-accident victim. I thought this was terrible behavior by the PPA and wrote as much.

Readers responded with a tsunami of their own tales of PPA or BAA incompetence, indifference or incivility. I scrambled to keep up with the stories without becoming a full-time parking reporter, and I still feel bad about the ones I’ve yet to get to.

Not because I have a personal bone to pick with the PPA or the BAA, but because people with legitimate complaints haven’t been able to get anyone in those agencies to hear them out. I think that’s wrong.

Still, in the interest of full disclosure, let’s be clear: Between us, my husband and I have gotten about 215 parking tickets over the past 16 years. The agencies treated us fairly. And I haven’t let that experience dilute my empathy for those who’ve not been treated as well.

Now let’s get to the weirdness of what McDonald did.

When I called him to ask if I was the subject of his 134-character tweet, he chuckled and, using a bad British accent, said, “I couldn’t possibly comment.” He then let on that he was mimicking BBC-TV’s fictional Francis Urquhart, the sinister British prime minister in “House of Cards.” Urquhart famously says “I couldn’t possibly comment” as a deniable way of letting people know he agrees with their assumptions.

Hah-hah, right? Except I don’t find anything funny about McDonald’s tweet.

I feel mortified that his 1,006 Twitter followers might think that I’m some kind of scofflaw with a personal ax to grind, when nothing could be further from the truth. And I’m really troubled that critics of the Nutter administration may start walking on eggshells because they’ll never know if or how a city official might reveal private information about them.

Last summer, after I’d written maybe my third parking column, I got wind that someone in City Hall was spreading rumors that I owed thousands of dollars in fines. I dismissed it, since the gossip wasn’t true and never rose to the level of public discourse. This very public tweet, though, has me rattled.

I’m no longer angry at McDonald. But I sure am disappointed in him. I always respected his work at the Daily News, although now I don’t know what to make of him.

When he was appointed press secretary in 2010, McDonald said, “The mayor is committed to an open and transparent government, and I look forward to working with news organizations focused on city government and services.”

Whether I think McDonald has betrayed that sentiment, well, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie’s blog at philly.com/RonnieBlog.

A version of this column mistakenly appeared on philly.com Monday morning due to a technical error.

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