The bureaucracy of poverty

Eva Gladstein, head of the city's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Janurary 14, 2012 (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Eva Gladstein, head of the city's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity. Janurary 14, 2012 (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 05, 2013

THE PROBLEM is painfully clear: Philadelphia, with more than one in four residents in poverty, is the poorest of the nation's big cities, and has been for a long time.

The solution? Impossibly complex.

To tackle the issue, Mayor Nutter this year is attempting to reform the city's antipoverty agency, the Mayor's Office of Community Services (MOCS), which for years has been a patronage dumping ground with a scattershot agenda and a budget that's poached by other city departments.

He renamed it the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, or "CEO," appointed a respected new director and gave it a focused mission: Produce a report on what city government can do to fight poverty, and coordinate its execution.

Many advocates were ecstatic about the plan, called "Shared Prosperity Philadelphia ( PDF)," if for no other reason than that the city finally had a plan.

Now that the applause has faded, the question becomes: Will any of it make a difference?

The plan is coming late in the administration, and the office's shrinking budget is still used to pad other departments. But a restructuring of its staff is underway, and many are optimistic that new director Eva Gladstein is the right leader to turn around the wayward office.

Gladstein started her career in the nonprofit sector and has since led such major projects as Nutter's overhaul of the Zoning Code and Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

She said that although poverty is an issue primarily driven by national and international factors, the plan aims to "marshal the city's resources and capabilities to the best extent possible."

"We committed ourselves to improving the lives of people who are living in poverty, to strengthening some of the proven pathways out of poverty," she said.

Budget buddies

Mayor James H.J. Tate established the Philadelphia Anti-Poverty Action Committee in 1965 to be Philly's designated Community Action Agency, which receives the federal Community Service Block Grant created in President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.

The office's role varied from mayor to mayor, and in times when local revenue was tight, its federal grant, which in 2013 was $4.8 million, was used to plug holes in other departments.

CEO, for instance, funds senior centers for the Department of Parks and Recreation, an arrangement that costs the office about $560,000 per year, according to records obtained through a Right to Know request.

The office also bankrolls the Department of Public Health's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at about $440,000 per year, and funds emergency shelters for the Office of Supportive Housing at $330,000 per year.

Although all of those programs serve low-income Philadelphians, former MOCS director Otis Bullock Jr. said they drain resources from the office's core mission.

"Most of the money was split between our staff salaries and subcontracting out to these other city agencies, which left very little money to do anything to actually alleviate poverty," Bullock said. "I'm really curious as to how they're going to accomplish some of the goals in the plan if nothing has changed in that regard."

Gladstein said she is working to reconfigure those agreements to meet the goals of Shared Prosperity. The money will still go to other departments, she said, but the programs it funds will tie into one of the five pillars of the plan.

The money for shelters, for instance, will go to helping poor people stay in their homes, rather than waiting until they're homeless - a shift to match the plan's goal of bolstering housing security.

"I wasn't here when the decision was made to fund any of those," Gladstein said. "We looked at [the agreements] this year in terms of their alignment with Shared Prosperity, and we'll continue to do that."

Patronage handoff

The Mayor's Office of Community Services has long had a reputation as a haven for patronage hires. Its staff is exempt from the Civil Service System, which is designed to prevent political influence, and many of its employees had political "sponsors" who recommended them.

There's Cynthia Barnes, a community leader in Nicetown who has ties to Council President Darrell Clarke. There's Earl Burton, who works on the Community Engagement Unit and was sponsored by Clarke's predecessor as president, Anna Verna.

Nutter has sponsored MOCS hires as well: Al Campbell Jr. is his pastor's son, Almer "Maxwell" Brown worked his 2007 campaign, Debra Brown was on his staff in City Council.

Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said he doesn't consider those to be examples of patronage because they weren't hired "because of politics or favor."

"The mayor knows them, knows their work, their skills and then hired them," he said.

Of Campbell, McDonald added, "The mayor has known the family since the mid-'80s and thinks very well of him."

Gladstein said that so far, her personnel decisions have been free from political pressures and that she is impressed with the talent in the office.

"There may have been people who were referred here by an elected official, and I'm not even sure who," she said. "One of the things that's special about exempt agencies in the city is that for the most part, people really have passion for the issue and really believe in it, and that's what I found here."

Former MOCS director Donna Cooper, who now runs Public Citizens for Children and Youth, agreed that having exempt employees can be a good thing.

"There's enormous flexibility," Cooper said. "Because it is an at-will agency, you can hire and fire. . . . They're public servants who are not under the union contract. They have much more risk everyday if they don't do their job."

At times, there have been limits to that flexibility.

Gary Green, who works in the Fatherhood Initiative, is the son of assistant managing director Jazelle Jones and the stepson of Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. In the past, he frequently failed to show up for work or would do so only to clock in, according to three MOCS sources.

"Gary Green was definitely an untouchable in the agency," a former MOCS employee said.

Green did not return requests for comment.

Councilman Jones said that he considers Green a son, not a stepson, and that a disgruntled former MOCS employee may be the root of false rumors about him.

"It's libelous," Jones said. "There's a time stamp on the office door, and he went through that and he proved that."

He noted that Green was hired by MOCS in 2005, two years before Jones was elected. The councilman was active in political circles before his election, and Green's mother, who did not respond to a request for comment, was already in city government.

Like several other programs, the Fatherhood Initiative is moving to another city agency but will continue to be funded from CEO's budget. As a result, Green now reports to the Mayor's Office of Reintegration Services, where he has had good attendance.

Gladstein said she is shifting personnel elsewhere so that CEO "can focus on the implementation of the plan."

"I think we provide valuable services, but do we as CEO need to be the provider of those services?" she asked. "Not necessarily."

Although those employees won't report to Gladstein, their salaries will still be paid with CEO money.

Too little too late?

Talk of reforming the Mayor's Office of Community Services began early in Nutter's administration. But the recession's squeeze on city finances and turf wars within the administration delayed the effort for years.

Now, Nutter has a little more than two years to implement the plan, leaving many to wonder whether it is too little too late to tackle an issue as deep as poverty in Philadelphia.

Community Legal Services general counsel Jonathan Stein said the success of Shared Prosperity could rest on whether the next mayor keeps it going.

"As a policy document, it's a good step forward," Stein said. "It's coming a little bit late, but hopefully mayoral candidates that are staking out positions very soon will buy into this. A key part of this will be that these policies will have longevity and become institutionalized."

In a survey of politicians rumored to be eyeing mayoral runs, none would commit to following through on Shared Prosperity if they succeeded Nutter.

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, Council President Darrell Clarke, Councilman Jim Kenney and Controller Alan Butkovitz all offered versions of the same response: Fighting poverty is a top priority, but they would address it through other means than the new plan.

Despite that prospect, almost every person interviewed for this story mentioned one reason he or she is optimistic about the office: Gladstein.

Gladstein was applauded for her leadership of the commission that rewrote the Zoning Code in 2012 - an impressive balancing act between disparate constituencies in a reform-resistant city.

Cooper, the former MOCS director, said she's hopeful Gladstein will get enough done before the administration ends so that the success of Shared Prosperity will be impossible to ignore.

"The mayor has put the right person in charge. If somebody's going to push this rock up the hill, it's her," Cooper said. "In spite of the fact that it's the second term and it's late in the second term, if the city can actually accomplish the goals it set out in this plan effectively, it will be very hard for the next mayor to tear it apart."

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

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