Inquirer Editorial: Unleashing city's watchdog

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 06, 2013

In the last five years, Philadelphia's Office of the Inspector General has conducted 1,000 investigations that have saved the city almost $35 million in corruption and mismanagement costs. The office achieved this return on an annual budget of only $1.3 million. And its vigilance likely encouraged more wrongheaded city employees to keep their hands out of the cookie jar.

But because the office was created by executive order, it could be dissolved by the stroke of a mayor's pen. The City Charter does not include it as a permanent part of the government, so no mayor is legally obligated to maintain it. A bill before City Council could correct that.

Mayor Nutter's appointment of former federal prosecutor Amy Kurland to head the office has shown how effective it can be. Her office's work has not only saved the city money. It's led to the firing of 161 city workers and the arrest or indictment of 44.

Who can forget the enterprising Water Department mail clerk who was recently arrested on charges that he sold $1 million worth of toner and ink bought by the city to outsiders and pocketed the cash? The office recovered another $1.85 million from a city contractor that faked minority participation documents.

But even with those and other successes, this watchdog could be easily leashed. A mayor less vigilant than Nutter could hire an ineffective inspector general or do away with the office entirely. That's why Councilman James Kenney's bill to add the office to the City Charter and strengthen it is so important.

The charter change, which would be subject to voter approval in May, would give the inspector general a five-year term, insulating him or her from political whims, and prohibit the inspector from seeking elective office for two years afterward.

Unfortunately, Kenney's legislation does not put Council under the inspector's purview. At the very least, the office should be empowered to examine Council's staff, contracts, and budgets.

Recent record penalties against Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown for campaign finance irregularities showed that the city Board of Ethics is doing a good job watching Council members' political spending. But more scrutiny is needed. Every once in a while, a Council member or staffer disgraces his or her colleagues with bad behavior. So Council should welcome any oversight that would protect the honor of those who take their jobs seriously.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke would be wise to refer this bill to committee quickly so that hearings can be held and a vote by the full Council can take place. The inspector general's record of successful investigations, as well as the resulting savings and chilling effect on ethically challenged city workers, are reasons enough for Council to pass this bill and let voters decide whether to enshrine the office in the charter.

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