SPEECH DISORDER: Union protesters halt Nutter's budget address

APRIL SAUL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mayor Nutter is escorted from City Council chambers after noisy protesters shouted down his annual budget address.
APRIL SAUL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mayor Nutter is escorted from City Council chambers after noisy protesters shouted down his annual budget address.
Posted: March 15, 2013

CITY COUNCIL President Darrell Clarke had a decision to make.

Politically powerful municipal unions had been threatening for days to take over City Hall to stop Mayor Nutter from delivering his budget address.

Nutter was adamant that he would deliver his speech to Council - an annual mayoral tradition.

So Clarke split the difference.

He let Nutter try to speak over the deafening din of angry union members for 10 minutes and then called it quits, recessing Council's session before Nutter realized what was happening - marking the first time in modern history that a mayor was unable to deliver a budget address.

The result: Clarke can say he gave Nutter a chance. And the unions know Clarke handed them a powerful moment, even if it doesn't amount to much in the long road of their protracted contract negotiations with Nutter.

The question, though, is what really happened in the moments leading up to that chaos?

Sources said Clarke suggested earlier in the week that Nutter forego the budget address, but that Nutter would not concede. Clarke denied that allegation but said Council spoke with the administration about the impending union firestorm.

When asked, Nutter said: "I'm going to leave it at there was some concern expressed about trying to give a speech under those circumstances. I said, 'Look, we'll do our best to get through it.' "

But after realizing raucous union members would likely turn Council chambers into a madhouse, Clarke had planned ahead to recess Council's session, sources said. The moment Nutter arrived, the mayor was instantly booed and attempted to yell out his speech over hollering and ear-piercing whistles. Clarke attempted to calm the crowd to no avail.

"The reality is there are certain options within a legislative body," Clarke said. "At the particular time it was clear we were not going to be able to conduct our business today, we decided to recess."

Clarke said he decided against clearing the chamber to avoid the potential for arrests and additional mayhem.

Nutter said he was unaware of the plan to recess until he noticed Clarke and other members walking around. He and Clarke briefly huddled on the floor. Nutter would not say what the conversation was about.

Nutter "should not have had to leave. This is our house. I don't care about what they think about the man," said Councilman Bill Green, who voted against recessing the hearing. "When Mayor Street was Council president, he cleared Council chambers many times."

Street, who was in attendance, said Clarke made the right call.

Had Council not recessed, Nutter said he would have continued his speech.

After Nutter left, Pete Matthews, president of District Council 33, the city's biggest union, stood in the middle of Council chambers with his arms raised, staring triumphantly at union members in the balconies.

City Hall insiders said the scene proved to be a bad look for Clarke, who either failed to or chose not to wield control of the crowd. Nutter later gave his address in the mayor's reception room before administration officials and reporters. Doors were closed to the public.

Tensions are especially high among Nutter and the municipal unions, AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, and the International Association of Firefighters Local 22 - all of which have been without a contract since 2009. Nutter recently asked the state Supreme Court for permission to impose terms on DC 33 that include pension and overtime savings, possible furloughs and incremental raises.

Clarke said he was concerned about the ongoing contract stalemates and promised to get involved to help resolve the matters.

"For the second year in a row, this impasse related to contracts has spilled into the City Council chambers in a very aggressive way," he said. "It has affected our ability to conduct our business."

Zack Stalberg, president of the city watchdog Committee of Seventy, said what happened Thursday is "bad for everyone."

"It's definitely bad for the unions, who are not going to win support . . . after going way over the line. It's bad for City Council, which demonstrated that it did not want to keep control of the room. And that looks bad for the mayor, who should command enough respect to prevent this from happening."


On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom

Blog: PhillyClout.com

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