Little Minds, Maybe, But No Consistency In Philly Politics

(January 2010)


We are reprimanded that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but a little consistency should not be too much to ask of city government.  In fact, a little consistency is pretty much all we want from government.  Tell us what we can do and what we can’t, and then enforce the rules dependably so we all can go about our merry ways.  Of course, consistency is too much to ask in Philadelphia politics.


The recent happy news that change may be finally coming to the Board of Revision of Taxes is certainly welcome.  After decades of maintaining a property-assessment system that is a fraud and a crime, and years of providing the pols and their pals with sinecures and sweetheart deals, the Board is poised to exit stage right.  If voters approve a Charter change this spring, the Board will be replaced by an agency of non-political, civil-service employees to conduct assessments and another panel of credentialed appointees to hear property-owners’ appeals.


But, in considering this necessary change, the major topic of discussion in City Hall was not how to make sure that the new bureaucracy produces fair and accurate real estate assessments (which should be THE primary concern).  Our elected officials were consumed with how to protect patronage jobs. 


For decades, the political armies have found jobs for their foot soldiers at the Board of Revision of Taxes where they work on the public payroll during the day and then perform political work when they are “off the clock.”  Critics contend that many of these jobs are make-work positions, wasting scarce public dollars to grease the wheels of the party machines.


But, one might ask, aren’t city workers supposed to NOT engage in political activities?  That is absolutely correct. 


Scarred by years of rampant corruption, Philadelphians adopted strict prohibitions against having public employees participate in political activities (even when they are not working) when they adopted the 1951 City Charter.  In a city where public jobs were literally sold by party officials, the restrictions that keep public work and political work totally separate were a stride toward a government by the people, not by the political parties.


To get around the prohibition from city workers engaging in political work, the patronage employees at the Board of Revision of Taxes were placed on the School District payroll since the District relies on the property assessments to determine the Real Estate Taxes that fund our schools.


City Solicitor Shelley Smith reviewed the situation and correctly determined that the workers at the Board of Revision of Taxes are city employees.  Mayor Nutter declared, “They should be on the city payroll and subject to the same rules and regulations as city employees,” saying the current employees would be allowed to take a civil service exam to apply for positions in the new property-assessment agency.


The move to allow the political workers to abandon their political positions and campaign work to apply for the new, civil-service jobs is a reasonable compromise to move forward.  (However, it seems absolutely clear that the new assessment agency should not have the same, bloated number of clerks and aides as the current BRT.) 


Here is where the need for consistency comes in.  Given the City Solicitor’s correct judgment of the situation, and the Mayor’s appropriate response, we need the same standard to apply throughout city government.

The City Controller — the public’s watchdog in rooting out fraud in city government — currently uses the same “stick-em-on-the School-District-payroll” ploy to employ a number of pols.  In fact, the Controller employs his campaign treasurer in a make-work position, wasting public money with the ruse. 


Hizzoner declared that the BRT’s workers cannot be political, but refuses to apply the same logic to the pols in the City Controller’s Office.  And what about the legion of political workers employed in other areas of city government, protected for years by a series of mayoral administrations that have looked the other way to preserve jobs for loyal party soldiers? 


A Daily News article explained that the Nutter Administration went out of its way to avoid publishing a City Solicitor’s opinion on the matter or apply the same rules elsewhere in government.  Mayoral spokesman Doug Oliver said “The city wanted to avoid unintended consequences which might occur when the answer to a very narrow and well defined concern is applied broadly without thorough case-by-case analysis.”


That foolishness is the very opposite of consistency.  The Nutter Administration’s response is nothing short of an inexcusable defense of the status quo; a weak-kneed capitulation to the hackocracy by the guy who told us he would “throw out bums in City Hall who have been ripping us off for years.”


If there are jobs that need to be done, let them be done by individuals focused on serving the public, not serving political bosses.  If jobs are unnecessary — and quite a few of them are nothing short of our tax dollars fueling political campaigns — then we can eliminate them and generate savings in the budget to preserve some of our threatened city services or reduce our oppressive tax burden.


The rules are clear.  In Philadelphia, if one wants to work in city government, one cannot play politics.  A little consistency from government in enforcing those rules should not be such a foolish thing to expect.