Thursday, April 7, 2011

1st District Council Debate Summary

Last night, at the Veteran Boxer's Association Hall in Port Richmond, we brought four candidates for 1st District City Council together at a table to debate the issues effecting Philadelphia.  Vern Anastasio, Joe Grace, Jeff Hornstein and Mark Squilla participated in the debate, attended by a super-diverse group of people.  Former boxers, community leaders, neighborhood people, politicians, candidates, republicans, democrats, libertarians, the elderly, men and women all packed into the hall to listen to the candidates with an open mind; to make an informed decision on which candidate would be the first new councilman in the 1st District in over sixteen years.  However, in my opinion...something was missing.

That something was candor.

While nobody wants an episode of Geraldo to break out during a debate, I found most of the responses to the questions eerily alike, making me wonder just how different these four candidates were on the issues at hand.  For those of you who were unable to make it, let me summarize:
After opening statements, the candidates were asked a question on what may be the primary reason that they are even able to run for the 1st District seat at this time...and that of course is DROP. 
When asked on their opinion of DROP and if they’d support any candidate who has participated in DROP for public office and/or leadership roles, the candidates resoundingly dammed the program and those who used it, making it clear that they’re in tune with the public outrage on this issue and are able to read Stu Bykofsky’s column in the News.  However, there were two distinct nuances, first, by Vern Anastasio who outright pledged to draft legislation to ban DROP from any city employee except members of the Police and Fire department, which drew applause in the room.  Second, Mark Squilla who stuck to the point that DROP is revenue neutral (which is true if it’s administered properly) and did not discuss the commitment to retire upon DROP collection, which is the central inflammatory issue in the court of public opinion. 

Next, the candidates were asked about their plans to close the $850M-$2 billion budget deficit. Many responses were both centered around land use and management, where some wanted to give out unused/abandoned land, instituted a homestead act, and start land use taxes (as opposed to property taxes).  One mentioned taxation.  The interesting point I find notable is that NONE of the candidates suggested a fix of the bail system and Sheriff’s Office to collect the over $1.5Billion in uncollected revenue already owed to the city or a sale or lease of either or both of the municipally-owned utilities (which are evaluated at a great deal of our deficit). 

We further asked them if they support the Mayor’s recommendation of full market valuation for property taxes, despite a steady decrease in Philadelphia property values. The answers were all over the map, but non of them were detailed, business friendly solutions to our multiple taxation issues.

Another interesting moment came when the candidates were asked if they support the “ban the box” legislation, despite criticism that it will cause undue expense to employers needing background investigations.  All four candidates danced around the issue, shifting the attention in the room to whether or not a person deserves a second chance after the correctional experience.  However, none of the candidates answered the question on whether they’d support the new legislation or work to repeal it.  Finally, I flat out asked them to show hands on which they’d do, which they all said they would work to modify the bill.  Politics at work.

Then, the candidates were given a bit of a test regarding their knowledge of the agencies they would be responsible for budget approval if elected.  Each candidate was given a different set of agencies to rate with hopes that they’d explain how they would use their budget oversight authority to improve the agency’s performance.

Jeff Hornstein was asked to speak about PGW & PWD, which he used to highlight the innovative water metering systems in place and agency performance.  What he failed to address was the crumbling infrastructure effecting these utilities, and how this has led to multiple gas leaks, water main breaks, cost the life of a 19-year old PGW worker, and has created hundreds of street closures in the last year.  What I was looking for was one brave soul who, as an academic, would analyze the idea that we could sell or lease these services to a private utility who would manage our infrastructure in a more professional manner and gladly pay the city for the privilege to do so.

Mark Squilla was asked to discuss the Office of the Inspector General & Ethics Board, partially because he was linked to backers who have had run-ins with both organizations. Mr. Squilla lauded the work of both organizations but failed to mention that they are mutually redundant and did not comment on Council’s continuous rejections to Inspector General Amy Kurland’s request for independent, citywide authority which would cut down on waste, fraud, and abuse in all city agencies and line offices and at the same time eliminate the need (and/or budget) for the Ethics Board and PHA Inspector General’s Office. 

Joe Grace was asked to speak about PHA, partially because his former employer,
John Street
, was the presiding board chair responsible for overseeing disgraced Director Carl Greene.  While Grace condemned Greene, he failed to address the patronage-ridden appointments to the PHA board that led to the Greene scandal, the redundant and ineffective PHA Police Department, and the ridiculous waste of money spent to have retreats at resorts or in outside legal council. 

Finally, Vern Anastasio addressed the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office. He spoke on the two Deputy Sheriffs assigned to traffic court who intervened in the beating that killed a pregnant woman recently.  He spoke as to why the office should be an appointee and not an elected line office, and spoke as to why you should be able to fire the Sheriff for gross mismanagement.  However, he didn’t speak as to what he, as a councilman would do to reform the Sheriff’s Office.  Namely, any councilman has the authority to vote against the Sheriff’s budget until they show a plan to mobilize their deputies on collection operations and seizures throughout the city (as is done nationwide), which would be the boots on the ground necessary to deploy his property plan for balancing the city budget.  

All candidates are in support of term limits for city council, and seem to agree upon three, four year terms.

The Interesting moments of the night came in section two, when I asked each candidate two specific questions relating to their background and experience.

Mark Squilla was asked comment on his endorsement for the 1st District Council seat by Councilman DiCicco, Congressman Brady, State Rep Keller (whom you once ran against) and union leader John Dougherty.  Please explain how you intend on bringing change (and what that change entails) to Municipal Government from within the same machine that has held the seat for over twenty years. He was also asked his thoughts on these facts relating to your endorsers:
1.      Councilman DiCicco – Whose DROP participation resulted in his retirement.
2.      Congressman Brady – Who is known as the bastion of Patronage in Philadelphia, as exhibited by his wife’s appointment to the PHA Board.
3.      State Rep Keller – Who is under FBI Investigation resulting in warrant service at his home and office.
4.      Union Leader John Dougherty – Also under FBI Investigation and is on the DRPA board that has been highlighted for waste, fraud, and abuse by news media in both states.

Mr. Squilla said he was happy to have endorsements from such a diverse set of people, and noted that Lynne Abraham also endorsed him; saying that he intends on working with all people in city government, and that these folks were still a vital part of Philadelphia city government.  We know this, of course, but are extremely weary of someone who wants to work closely with a pack that has led Philadelphia into a pit of debt, theft, and patronage.

Jeff Hornstein was asked how, with a background in labor organization, he would you be able to make decisions in the public interest that required heavy union concessions and/or layoffs to which he said that he would be uniquely suited to do so since he understood the unions and could talk to them.  He was also asked, as someone who is connected to the education sector and the American Federation of Teachers, to comment on the state of public education in Philadelphia, to include the performance of Supt. Ackerman.   He used this question as a segway to praise teachers and condemn the budgeting of school districts, but gave no direct commentary about Supt. Ackerman and the poor state of safety in our schools.

Joe Grace  was asked how he could win he public’s trust in your ethical campaign assertions despite your prior work with Mayor street, who he had served as the Communications Director for during the administration, when Cory Kemp and Rom White were prosecuted and the Mayor was himself under FBI investigation for public corruption. Mr. Grace sidestepped the question, saying that he didn’t work for
John Street
, he worked for the city of Philadelphia.  He failed to condemn the actions and racial politics of the street administration and the corrupt legacy that the Street brothers have cast on our city. 

He was also asked, as the Executive Director of CeaseFirePA, to comment on any plans you may have to intensify municipal gun control laws, you opinions on recent supreme court rulings in DC and Chicago upholding the 2nd Amendment, and if you believe gun control is proven to control crime in Urban America. He stated that he was not a supporter of gun control and only wanted to enforce current gun laws, which is a first for any urban democratic politician I’ve ever met.

Lastly, Vern Anastasio was asked how he’d expect to change the face of municipal government from within the same party that is responsible for the patronage and nepotism that he claims to be running against. He pointed out that he has been a perennial candidate who has children in city schools, and that he has worked on his own time to change city government on a voluntary basis for many years.  When asked how, as someone who was born, raised, and lived in Bella Vista, he plans to serve these traditionally underrepresented sections of the 1st District, Mr. Anastasio pledged to put a council office in Port Richmond, which shall have evening hours to serve people in a part of the district who have a long-standing tradition of going to Republican State Rep John Taylor for constituent service because they cannot get Frank DiCicco’s attention outside of South Philly.   

All in all, I feel as if I could have done a better job in making the candidates explain their answers.  What was witnessed last night was political theater, highlighted by the fact that there was a debate between four democrats and no republicans; which meant the candidates were hedging their bets and being polite to one another, in the event they need to run for office in their party in the future. 

With a four-candidate debate to run, I was concerned with the time; but since the media was in the room, it would have been more responsible to harp on making the candidates give specific answers on what they intend on doing to fix the problems effecting Philadelphia and move beyond the promise of “change” and the reiteration of the problem, which is classic political theater. 

Next time, on the 20th, we will concentrate on the details and plans of the candidates, and not the political rhetoric.

However, if I was to endorse any of the four candidates based on their performance last night, I would say that Vern Anastasio was the candidate that spoke his mind, and from the heart; and seemed to have genuine, realistic solutions for some of our city’s problems.


  1. You are dead on correct with everything you said. Anastasio sounded like a Democrat for sure - but at least he was the only one with the guts to say how much of DROP he wants to get rid of.

  2. Great coverage from the paper can be read here: