Tax reform the latest dispute between Nutter and City Council

Mayor Nutter looked up as protesters, mainly from local labor unions, created too much noise Thursday in the balcony of City Council for him to deliver his budget address.
Mayor Nutter looked up as protesters, mainly from local labor unions, created too much noise Thursday in the balcony of City Council for him to deliver his budget address. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 18, 2013

Mayor Nutter has had a tortured relationship with City Council since the outset of his first term, when he asked the members to give up their city cars, a hallowed perk for many.

Council members since have sued him (to stop library closures), frustrated his policy goals (twice blocking a tax on sugary drinks), and ignored him (refusing even to introduce a scaled-back pension program that is a cornerstone of the city's offer to municipal unions).

On Thursday, they literally walked out on him as he attempted to deliver his annual budget address over the din of protesting municipal union members. Nutter said he had no idea Council President Darrell L. Clarke had called a recess with members' assent.

"I was a guest there," he said. "The host has to kind of deal with what goes on in their house."

That fiasco underscored what many members have said in recent weeks - that Nutter was without a single solid ally on the 17-member body, someone who could shepherd his vision through the legislative process.

"I like him personally, but it's too dangerous to be a dependable vote for him," said Councilman James F. Kenney, who went to high school with Nutter at St. Joseph's Prep. "He doesn't communicate. He goes his own way, and he doesn't build coalitions. You're either with him because he's right, or you're wrong."

In a telephone interview before the budget address, Nutter said he thought he had "a good working relationship" with Council, while recognizing "it is 17 independent, individually elected members who have their own concerns, thoughts, and ideas."

At the center of this year's budget is the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), the effort to reform the city's broken property-tax system. Years in the making, AVI now is giving heartburn to Council members hearing from constituents angry about higher bills.

It will require some degree of partnership to become reality. Nutter on Thursday laid out what he called a starting point for talks with Council over what AVI should look like - a 1.32 percent tax rate and three kinds of tax relief for homeowners and small businesses.

But Council members already have introduced no fewer than eight bills that would modify AVI, some in significant ways. Last year, Council delayed AVI because a citywide reassessment wasn't complete - this year, some members are arguing the reassessment isn't accurate.

Given the history, can Nutter find the nine votes necessary to fend off any threats to neuter or even stall AVI again, passing his vision of a transparent and fair tax system?

'The process'

Nutter noted that he and Council had been able to resolve their differences to get the city through a national recession, and with AVI they were on the verge of "the largest reform in the city in 50 years."

"Sometimes it's loud and noisy, but that's the process," he said. "Regardless of how one elected official may feel about another, all of us took the same oath to serve our constituents. The overwhelming majority . . . don't let whatever personal view they have of some individual get in the way of doing their duty."

Councilman Bill Green acknowledged that relations between Nutter and Council were "clearly strained," but when it comes to AVI, the mayor already "won that fight."

Last year, Council passed a bill that requires AVI to be implemented this year. The only way out of that box is to pass a new law by a veto-proof margin - something Green doesn't believe will happen.

"It's a significant reform that, no matter what happens with Council this year, is going to be accomplished," he said. "The way it's set up, he'll have his way. . . . It would take 12 votes to change AVI in a way that he's not in favor of."

Ultimately, AVI could be an object lesson in Nutter's dealings with Council.

Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. said AVI's fate was less dependent on the mayor's messaging than "the correctness of the issue" and how the new tax bills affect individual Council members.

In other words, everyone knows the system needs to be fixed, and if the numbers are right, AVI could pass without any politicking from the mayor.

But Tom Massaro, a former city housing director who has mentored the last two classes of newly elected Council members, said the mayor could earn some valuable goodwill with a little outreach.

Members like Mark Squilla and Kenyatta Johnson, both in their first terms, have been attending community meetings filled with confused and frustrated voters facing large tax increases.

Nutter, who can't run for mayor again, could be going to those meetings, Massaro said, and "sharing that heat with them."

"He's got to convince Council to do something politically challenging while he's not facing the same challenge," he said.

Several Council members said that approach was typical of Nutter, who tends to form policy without consulting Council, and then seeks support based on whomever naturally would support an issue.

"He works within his circle, and we work within ours," said Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. "Council is organized by themselves rather than being organized by the mayor."

Nutter's relationship with Council reflects both his own path to the mayor's office and the tougher issues any mayor must face in a weak economy.

Since the City Charter was rewritten in 1951, Nutter is just the third councilman to become mayor. The previous two - James H.J. Tate and John F. Street - both had been Council presidents under popular mayors.

Nutter's 15-year tenure in Council was different. He never held a leadership position and stayed largely independent from the various Council factions - "a loner," Kenney said.

That left Nutter free to chart his own political course, but made it difficult to assemble the votes for his own legislative initiatives.

He was elected mayor in 2007, after a five-way Democratic primary, with a fairly narrow political base: liberals in Center City and Northwest Philadelphia, concerned about issues like corruption, government reform, and the environment, but not as influential with Council as organized labor and the black clergy, among other traditional Democratic power sources.

Neil Oxman, whose firm, the Campaign Group, directed campaign advertising for Nutter and prior mayors, said reforms have reduced the clout that mayors used to wield, using jobs and pinstripe patronage to get their way.

"You used to have some leverage by calling up a Council member and saying, 'Your committee people, I'm firing all of them this afternoon.' But you can't do that anymore - there aren't many patronage jobs, the mayor doesn't control them, and that's not the way you do things," Oxman said.

Nutter also has had to confront problems, like the national economic collapse, that his predecessors did not.

"The mayor has to stand up and say, 'We have no money and we have to change the way we do business, to do some unpleasant things,' " Oxman said. "I think Nutter has done that."

"Council is a different matter," he continued. "You're not talking about, frankly, a lot of profiles in courage over there. There are some really good Council members I admire and there are some slugs . . . who care much more about their own reelections than about the future of the city."

Kenney said the last two mayors - Street and Ed Rendell - had different styles, both of which were more effective than Nutter's approach.

Rendell made "everyone feel a part of the process," Kenney said. People, in turn, worked hard to please him. Street was a cutthroat tactician who "could get nine votes at the snap of his fingers."

'More respect'

"I know - I was on the other side of that," Kenney said. "Was Street always pleasant? No, but I have more respect for him now than when he left."

Nutter became mayor, in part, by running as the antidote to some of the scandals and public dissatisfaction with Street.

Street protégé Darrell L. Clarke became Council president in 2011, despite Nutter's backing Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco for the post.

Clarke had the support of John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, the powerful leader of Local 98 of the electricians' union, who was ousted by Nutter as chairman of the city Redevelopment Authority.

Dougherty continues to be regarded as one of the most powerful figures in city politics, and he's made no secret of his continuing disdain for Nutter. Dougherty's former political director, Bobby Henon, joined Council last year and continues to work for Dougherty in an untitled, salaried position.

Nutter and Clarke, meanwhile, meet regularly but clearly are still figuring out how to work together.

Clarke has taken issue with the administration on several fronts recently - for not releasing the results of the reassessment until February, and for not moving more quickly on his proposals to sell advertising on municipal property and make better use of surveillance cameras as a crime-fighting tool.

After the budget address, Clarke said he took the union disruption as a sign that he needed to get involved in contract negotiations with the unions - an "unprecedented" intrusion on executive powers.

Asked in the days before if the mayor was willing to make deals with Council, Clarke chose his words carefully.

"There are times when the ability to negotiate an agreement is probably not as expeditious as some would like," Clarke said. "But, you know, the mayor is who he is. He's been here a long time. I've known him for plus-20 years. He's Michael Nutter."


Contact Troy Graham

at 215-854-2730, tgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @troyjgraham.

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