Phila. controller's race enlivens a sleepy ballot season

City Controller Alan Butkovitz brushes off criticism.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz brushes off criticism.
Posted: May 20, 2013

For any city controller in Philadelphia there is a conflict between the ideal job specifications and the political reality of getting yourself elected.

The public would like to see a snarling watchdog keeping a wary eye over city finances, fearlessly attacking mayors, City Council members, bureaucrats, ward leaders, and union bosses whenever they threaten to tax or spend or waste another penny from the public till.

The reality is, the controller - the most powerful city office on the ballot in Tuesday's sleepy Pennsylvania primary - gets elected every four years in low-turnout Democratic primaries where organizational support from the same assortment of party power brokers can be critical to winning reelection.

That's both the blessing and the curse that Alan Butkovitz carries as he seeks the Democratic nomination for a third term, against two aggressive challengers - Brett Mandel, 44, a civic activist who worked in the controller's office under the previous controller, Jonathan Saidel, and Mark Zecca, 60, a recently retired veteran lawyer with the city Law Department.

Both say Butkovitz has been too cozy with the city's power structure. They say he was either inattentive or ineffective in uncovering and stopping mismanagement at major city-related agencies including the Philadelphia School District, the Sheriff's Office - two areas that Butkovitz regards as successes - and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where two Butkovitz appointees presided over the tenure of fired executive director Carl Greene.

"We have a watchdog who might be good at fetching balls and might be good at rolling over, but has not been good at being a watchdog," said Mandel.

"We will never stop the theft and mismanagement of city dollars by simply throwing people in jail or writing reports after the fact," said Zecca, criticizing a recent city lawsuit against a contractor Butkovitz accused of overcharging the sheriff's office by millions of dollars.

"We need strong financial controls to stop these outrages," Zecca said, "and we need a controller who makes sure they work."

Butkovitz, 61, dismisses the criticism as uninformed, citing his very public disputes with the School District over its financial records and accounting practices, going back to his first months as controller in 2006.

"I was constantly raising alarms they didn't want to discuss," he said. The district's accounting practices were designed to camouflage "what I thought was going to be an inevitable insolvency," he said.

Butkovitz cites a forensic audit of the sheriff's office in 2011, the spur for an ongoing federal corruption probe, as one of the highlights of his tenure.

Butkovitz is a Democratic ward leader in the Castor Gardens section of the Northeast and spent 15 years in the state House before winning the controller's seat in 2005.

When he formally announced his reelection bid in February, he filled a hotel meeting room with Democratic establishment all-stars singing his praises, including City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, electricians' union leader John J. Dougherty, and NAACP leader J. Whyatt Mondesire.

But Butkovitz says he has never hesitated to "call the shots as I see them regardless of the political consequences. . . . You can't pretend that you're making hard decisions. You have to go and put yourself on the line."

Of late his most controversial stand has been his steadfast opposition to the Nutter administration's Actual Value Initiative (AVI), a reassessment of real estate that is supposed to approximate their market value.

"We have been the only source of information that runs contrary to the politically correct idea that this is a good thing," Butkovitz said.

A recent study by Carnegie-Mellon University professor Robert P. Strauss, commissioned by the controller, concluded that the new assessments are seriously flawed. Butkovitz said the new assessments are less accurate than the old ones and the city would be better off delaying use of the new values until it can improve them.

"Trying to score political points, he has led this fearmongering campaign across the city, scaring voters to death. He has been irresponsible," says Mandel, who was involved in pushing for a citywide reassessment, improvements in assessment practices, and other changes as a member of a city Tax Reform Commission, established by a public referendum in 2002.

"If there are problems [with the new assessments], we should fix them," Mandel said, and if people believe their properties are over-assessed, "people should appeal." But he said that only 3 percent of the city's property owners had filed appeals and said the city should implement the new assessments.

Mandel traces the city's perennial budget difficulties to a lack of public transparency and pledges that if elected, he would use the Internet to publicize all expenditures and contracts for the city and School District.

To prove it could be done, a developer friend created a website tool at http://budget.brettmandel.com, where a determined citizen can look at every single payment made by the city in fiscal 2012, Mandel said.

Zecca, the son of Anthony "Tony" Zecca, a prominent city spokesman during Mayor Frank Rizzo's administration, says the controller's office needs to use its powers over city finances to identify potential misspending before it occurs.

"He can stop checks. He can hold up contracts. He can force explanations," Zecca said.

Zecca has spent the last month trying to position himself for voters as the better alternative to Butkovitz.

Zecca cites a private meeting between Butkovitz and Mandel in early 2012, first reported in the Philadelphia Daily News, where, according to Butkovitz, Mandel suggested two alternatives to avoid a bitter primary fight.

One alternative was for Butkovitz to drop his reelection bid and focus on a 2015 campaign for mayor, which Mandel would endorse in exchange for Butkovitz's support in 2013. Butkovitz said he rejected that outright.

The second alternative called for Butkovitz to appoint Mandel as one of his three deputies, putting Mandel in position for a possible mayoral appointment as controller if Butkovitz were to resign. Butkovitz said he cut off that discussion for fear of violating state law, by tying a government job to a political favor.

Mandel said that he could not remember exactly who suggested what, but that he walked away from the meeting "thinking nothing more than I wasted an hour of my life."

Zecca has repeatedly described the situation as corrupt, condemning Mandel for proposing a deal and Butkovitz for not reporting the proposal to the nearest prosecutor.

In a debate at 6ABC last week, Zecca dropped the best line of his campaign: "I think the solution is, we need to elect a controller who was not in that meeting."


Tuesday's Pa. Primary: What Voters Need to Know

Voters across Pennsylvania have only one statewide contest on Tuesday's primary ballot - the Democratic primary for a seat on Superior Court.

That race is between Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Jack McVay and Municipal Court Judge Joseph C. Waters Jr. of Philadelphia. Republican Vic Stabile of Dauphin County is unopposed. The state bar association has rated all three "recommended."

Locally, voters in Philadelphia and Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties will nominate Democrats and Republicans for seats on Common Pleas, Municipal, and District Court, as well as numerous suburban municipal and school posts.

The primary for Philadelphia's scandal-plagued Traffic Court features 25 Democrats and two Republicans seeking three judgeships - on a bench the legislature could eliminate by fall.

The state's voter ID law, still being argued in court, will not be enforced for the primary. Poll officials may ask for ID but won't require it.

In Bucks County, party candidates for several row offices are running unopposed. Sheriff Edward "Duke" Donnelley, a Republican, is facing primary opposition from political activist Tom Lingenfelter. Prothonotary Pat Bachtle, a Republican, is opposed by lawyer Michelle Christian.

In Chester County, too, many candidates are running unopposed for party nominations. Voters will nominate candidates for county controller, treasurer, clerk of courts, and coroner. Honeybrook, Phoenixville, and South Coatesville have contested mayoral primaries. Most municipalities have town supervisor or City Council spots open, with a crowded Democratic primary in Coatesville.

In Delaware County, Democrats hope to break the GOP's grip on County Council, where two seats are at stake. On the Democratic slate are Patricia Worrell, a Chester businesswoman and real estate broker, and Bill Clinton, of the Upper Providence Township Council. Republicans seeking reelection are David White, a former Ridley Township commissioner, and Mario Civera, a former state representative.

In Montgomery County, the only countywide races are for two Common Pleas Court judgeships. The news Tuesday may be about polling places - in April, the county commissioners fired the longtime voter services director and installed a Democrat. Republicans have raised concerns that the election's efficiency and integrity will be affected.

Other Information

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Philadelphia: 215-686-3462 or phillyelection.com.

Bucks: 215-348-6154 or buckscounty.org.

Chester: 610-344-6410 or chesco.org.

Delaware: 610-891-4673 or co.delaware.pa.us/depts/election.html.

Montgomery: 610-278-3275 or montcopa.org.

- Kathy Boccella, Chris Palmer,

Jessica Parks, and Aubrey Whelan


Contact Bob Warner

at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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