Separate tables for Nutter and Council

Union members opposed to a plan to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works demonstrate outside City Hall before Mayor Nutter's budget address to City Council.
Union members opposed to a plan to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works demonstrate outside City Hall before Mayor Nutter's budget address to City Council. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 10, 2014

What a difference a year makes. Last March, Mayor Nutter's annual budget address was silenced by a ferocious din of enraged municipal workers with piercing whistles. Council President Darrell Clarke did nothing to preserve order in his chambers. Instead, he declared a recess and left with his assembled troops. An increasingly hoarse Nutter read his speech to an audience of none and was later forced to repeat it to his staff downstairs.

There were no shouts or whistles at this year's address. That's because there was barely any presence of union members, who were largely barred from entering and restricted to rallying around City Hall's perimeter, with enough police on hand to staff several central-state counties. This was an invitation-only budget address, with Council's balconies almost empty.

"The fact that he had to do this speaks volumes," said Councilman James Kenney, once a Nutter ally and now, like many fourth-floor denizens, a pronounced critic. "Rendell was tough on the unions, but you didn't see this happening."

Nutter titled the speech "Working Together," and he invoked that phrase 10 times like a mantra. He employed the rhetoric of inclusion, heavy on us and we. The mayor admitted the error of his 2009 plan to shutter 11 libraries - "the absolute worst decision" of his two decades in elected office, he said later - and proposed adding $2.3 million in funding so all branches can be open six days a week. "This Council was right on this issue," he said, "and I've been determined to correct my mistake ever since."

But Nutter and Council are most emphatically not working together. They're not even eating at the same lunch table.

Council members offered Nutter faint applause, if any. The respect is simply not there. This relationship is long busted - it's not clear there was much of one to begin with - with slim chance of being repaired.

Nutter made terrible mistakes early on, failing to court the thin-skinned, petty potentates. The mayor made a pronounced opponent in Clarke, who has amassed serious union support. The Council president has shown true political agility with entrenched city interests, while Nutter remains prone to stepping on toes. As in the Marx brothers song, whatever the mayor is for, Clarke is against it.

Before the budget address, Clarke appeared outside City Hall with vocal members of AFSCME District Council 33, representing municipal blue-collar workers who have been without a contract for five years, as well as Utility Workers Union of America Local 686, who oppose Nutter's proposed $1.86 billion sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works to a Connecticut company. Clarke said, "We are not supportive of privatizing municipal workers." Afterward, to reinforce his position, Clarke appeared again with union leaders, along with 10 fellow Council members. He could have launched a mayoral bid right there.

"I want to give D.C. 33 raises, and I want to get a contract soon," said Nutter, who also promised that "all PGW workers will be offered employment" with the prospective buyer, and that "there will be no layoffs" for three years.

But there are few believers. There was already bad faith, and workers have been whipped into a frenzy. Change is not something Philadelphia does well - certainly not in government - and it comes at a glacial pace. Though other big cities have gotten out of gas works, Philadelphia operates the nation's oldest and largest municipally owned system.

About a quarter of current spending goes to the city's liability for pension and other benefits. Nutter's $4.5 billion budget depends on the PGW sale, which he said "could infuse between $420 million and $630 million" to the pension fund. That's a fraction of the $5.2 billion unfunded obligation to city employees and retirees, but at least it's a start.

Or, then again, maybe not. You can quiet City Council for only a couple of hours.

215-854-2586 @kheller

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