PHA — Out Of Control?

(September 2010)

The drama at the Philadelphia Housing Authority has everything one would look for in a scandal -- dirty deeds, a struggle for power, and a ton of finger pointing about who knew what and when they knew it.  The one thing missing is leadership from our elected officials.  Despite the fact that the Mayor and the City Controller are charged with the power and the duty to appoint the members of the PHA board, they are providing little direction to move forward in a positive direction.  

During a candidates’ debate when I ran for City Controller against the incumbent in 2009, I enjoyed a pointed exchange about oversight at PHA that turned out to be prophetic.  After pointing out that the Controller’s two appointments to the PHA Board were Debra Brady (the wife of Congressman and Philadelphia Democratic Party Chair Bob Brady) and Patrick Eiding (the head of the Philadelphia-area AFL-CIO), the moderator questioned whether those appointments were emblematic of the cozy relationships in Philadelphia that preserve the status quo and leave us with leadership that has little interest in reform.

I quickly agreed to the moderator’s premise and marveled at how, in a city with so many talented individuals who are housing experts or advocates, the Controller instead appointed two politically connected insiders to the PHA Board.  I pledged that, as Controller, I would appoint individuals with the knowledge and independence to properly oversee the agency.

Alan Butkowitz responded that Brady and Eiding had been appointed by his predecessor and scoffed at the notion that that he was not independent or aggressive in demanding accountability.  He claimed he had even clashed with the previous Controller’s appointees and suggested that his own appointments would meet a high standard.

Now, we know that Butkovitz’s maverick-y talk was bluster.  Given the chance to appoint individuals who would provide careful scrutiny of the agency, Butkovitz turned to his inner hack and eschewed a reformer’s knack.

Butkovitz re-appointed Debra Brady to the board of PHA and, even in the wake of the revelations of scandal at the Authority and criticism of his appointees’ attendance records, Butkovitz just recently reappointed Eiding. 

Offered a chance to demonstrate some leadership and to make a statement that there would be some measure of accountability, he chose to reinforce the interconnected web of cronyism that holds Philadelphia back.

Is there no other individual in Philadelphia who might have the time, the inclination, and the stones to provide better oversight to an agency where so much wrongdoing has been revealed? 

Is there no acknowledgment that this current scandal demands a response that demonstrates that something must change in the way the agency is led?

Despite any positive contributions of the board members and despite any of the agency’s successes, effective management and positive stewardship demand new leadership at PHA.

Given the opportunity to make a public statement that he is serious about change, Alan Butkovitz waffled.  Provided the chance to show that he insists on accountability, Alan Butkovitz wilted.

Too often, our leaders use their appointments to various boards and commissions as buffers and as excuses to not show leadership.  But, the voters elect officials to lead and when scandals like the shenanigans at PHA emerge, the public does not want to hear that our leaders are “out of the loop” or powerless to act. 

How would I have handled this scandal?  Not only would I have appointed a new board member to replace the member with the expired term, I would have asked the previous Controller’s appointees to the PHA to respectfully resign when I took office to allow me to appoint my own representatives.  How could I be accountable to the voters who elected me if appointments made by the authority of my office were not accountable to me?  If the board members refused to resign, I would have appointed individuals to attend board meetings and monitor PHA so I could provide a measure of oversight even with the “Controller’s Board Members” refusing to step aside.

Holding elected office involves exercising both power and responsibility.  If our elected officials don’t want to lead, there are plenty of other jobs for them that require less backbone and demand less integrity.  But, to make them look for more suitable employment, it is up to us to pay attention to what is said during candidate debates and vote accordingly.