After setback, is Nutter a lamer duck?

CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In his second term, Mayor Nutter has had difficulty getting City Council support on anything on his agenda.
CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In his second term, Mayor Nutter has had difficulty getting City Council support on anything on his agenda.
Posted: September 27, 2013

MAYOR NUTTER has for weeks been calling on City Council - publicly and privately - to move forward on Gov. Corbett's school-funding plan, but has yet to get a single member to introduce the legislation.

City Hall insiders say it's emblematic of Council's sheer disregard for the mayor, who appears to lack even a single reliable ally to push his second-term agenda.

"I've never heard of that before. Never," said Councilman Jim Kenney, a former longtime Nutter pal and ally, who finds the school-funding stalemate symbolic of the mayor's icy relations with Council.

Duck season

Is Nutter the lamest of lame ducks?

The school-funding plan isn't the only mayoral proposal to be ignored by Council.

His proposal to shift future elected officials and thousands of city employees to a lower-cost pension plan has languished for nearly a year. His push to kill the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan yielded only some Council modifications.

"I don't think it's necessarily the end, but second-term mayors really run out of juice about this time," said Zack Stalberg, president of the government-watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "It's going to be very, very difficult for him to achieve anything meaningful on schools or just about any other issue you can think of without being able to make a deal with Council."

The stalemate between the city's blue- and white-collar unions, who have been without a contract since 2009, and Nutter's inability to get Council to go along with pension reforms means the underfunded pension fund remains a serious drain on city coffers and a threat to fiscal stability.

Nutter may also soon seek Council's support in the sale of Philadelphia Gas Works, whose proceeds would go toward the pension fund. A sale would also have to be approved by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Some Council members have already expressed opposition. They point to the utility's current good standing and concerns about lost jobs and cutoffs to low-income customers. Insiders say that a potential sale could also face opposition simply because it's the mayor's plan.

Council President Darrell Clarke says it's less about personalities and more about good policy.

"Business is business. Friends are friends," Clarke said. "At the end of the day, it's not about me or the other 16 members of Council or about the mayor; it's about the citizens of the city of Philadelphia, and that's our responsibility."

Council and the mayor have managed to move forward on some big-ticket items, such as fixing the city's broken property-tax system under the Actual Value Initiative and updating the city's zoning code. Nutter also successfully steered the city through tough financial times after the 2008 economic crash and managed to boost the city's national profile.

"It is enormously complex to navigate complex financial and public-policy initiatives, particularly in tough financial times," said David L. Cohen, Comcast executive and chief of staff under Mayor Ed Rendell. "But the history books will reflect that this mayor and Council have come together to agree on very tough budgets every year [and on time]; that this mayor has presided over upgrades of the city's bond rating, and that this mayor and Council president have led the city at a time when its external reputation and standing have improved substantially, and when Philadelphia has turned the corner and begun to attract jobs and population."

Nevertheless, Philadelphians gave Nutter his lowest approval rating in five years, according to a poll released yesterday by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Fifty-two percent of residents disapproved of the mayor's performance compared to 30 percent last year. His approval rating dropped from 60 percent to 39 percent now.

"The mayor is concerned, just like most Philadelphians," said mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald. "The school-funding issue is a solvable problem, and he's working to stabilize school district finances. But that will only happen if all parties do their part."

Council fared little better. Its disapproval rating rose to 57 percent from 39 percent in 2009. The survey was conducted during the school-funding crisis and in the aftermath of the Center City building collapse. Another Pew poll shows that Philadelphians equally blame local and state elected officials for the schools' dire status.

Change of style

So, what does the mayor-Council standoff on school funding mean for the city?

"The mayor wants a legacy, and the Council president may want to be mayor," a City Hall source said. "Even if [Clarke] doesn't want to be a citywide leader, unless they reconcile their differences, the city is going to limp along, with last-minute decisions, the solutions won't be very good and the outcomes won't be very good."

Even as a councilman, Nutter was a loner. He was on Council for 14 years, and when he ran for mayor, his colleagues did not support him in the crowded primary.

As mayor, he's promised government reform and opted against engaging in old-school politics. But Kenney said that Nutter's style makes things difficult and that he quickly grew tired of carrying his water with no reward. To get things done in his final years, some say, Nutter may have to bend a little - or at least make members feel as if they are a part of the team, as Rendell did.

"As we roll closer to the end of this administration, it will become increasingly more important that the small politics is superseded by big policies, and in order to do that, you have to incorporate individual members' interests into the large vision for the city," said majority leader Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.

Clarke has so far successfully managed the 17-member legislative body, a majority of whom appear united under his leadership.

Critics add that sometimes Nutter gets in his own way by fighting battles he can't win or staging news conferences to publicly pressure elected officials.

The latter was one of his earliest missteps, members say, when he called on Council to turn in the keys to their city-owned cars.

"You do that in private," Kenney said, noting he doesn't have a city car. "You don't call people out in public and expect them all to be lined up to help you. Again there's this tough-guy attitude . . . there's no place for that in a democratic government, unless you're John Street, and you have seven to nine votes in your pocket."

On Twitter: @Jan_Ransom



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