by Jay A. McCalla
“Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” This is indubitably the case in Philadelphia government where ribbon cuttings and blame sweeping are two favored activities.
On the most grand and egregious scale, we recall the awful action the city took against MOVE, resulting in the destruction of more than 60 houses and the loss of human life. Not one city official was specifically blamed and nobody even faced a reprimand for what had so obviously gone horribly wrong.
Despite the Department of Licenses and Inspection’s plain failures regarding the infamous and deadly crash at 22nd and Market streets, not one city official received or accepted blame.
We routinely read about the positive work performed by the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. Yet, recent studies have shown more than 20 percent of adult citizens of this city are functionally illiterate.
Voters and citizens have watched our local government become comfortably nestled amidst dysfunction and purposefully opaque transactions designed to conceal relevant facts. With a touch of ennui, we softly groan at “their” antics and then return our attentions to our families and friends.
Even with our rich history of one gnarled hand secretly scratching another, the recent announcement that Mayor Kenney is abandoning the 46th and Market streets site for the new police headquarters raises – for me – a heightened mix of cynicism and outrage. At first blush, it seemed to be the most consciously wasteful decision in modern Philadelphia history. A week or two later, appearances are unchanged.
The big picture was presented by Mayor Kenney, and it was a lovely picture indeed. There would be consolidation, convenience, “long term” cost savings, yadda, yadda, yadda. But, let’s try something fun and useful. Let’s read between the unspoken lines.
Kenney acknowledges that he had been searching for a new police headquarters from the moment he took office. He doesn’t say why. He doesn’t say why he abandoned a two-year-old project into which a cash-poor city had sunk $50 million. The new site, the Inquirer Building on Broad St., will cost as much to renovate as the 46th & Market site. So, cost wasn’t a factor.
Displaying the requisite flexibility of mayoral appointees, Police Commissioner Richard Ross applauds the move – despite being part of the Nutter crowd that approved 46th and Market, in the first place – saying the new location has “easier highway access from the Northeast, where a large number of officers live.” In case his point was missed, he continued to say it’s a trek just to get to City Hall “but, there’s no easy way to get to 4601 from Northeast Philadelphia.” OK, so cops in the Northeast were very unhappy with the move. Now, we’re getting somewhere.
Amazing things can happen when a candidate seeks the endorsement of an influential group. I recall being dispatched by Ed Rendell, during his 1991 mayoral campaign, to chat with The Valiants, an organization of African American firefighters, to see if their support was available. It was. But, they wanted Harold Hairston appointed Fire Commissioner in exchange. To keep a short story short, Hairston was appointed Fire Commissioner. Far from shocking, this is a typical political trade.
So, I must wonder what might have been surreptitiously agreed to when Kenney approached the FOP for its support in his own mayoral bid. Remember, he never said WHY he began an immediate search for a new site. He never explained his motive for starting down this woefully wasteful walkway to begin with. What considerations outweighed the fact of our immense expenditure of time and money?
In a city where schools stagger from day to day and a third of our neighbors are below the poverty line, there were better uses for the $50 million. Roughly 4,000 homes of the poor could have been weatherized. For perspective, the entire budget for Licenses & Inspections is less than $30 million. At $153 per credit hour, how many Philly kids could have attended Philadelphia Community College for free? No matter how one cuts it, $50 million is an enormous amount of money.
Without willing witnesses, it isn’t possible to know exactly what was agreed to between Kenney and the FOP. But, in the absence of a frank explanation for this offensively expensive flip-flop, I must be guided by my experience and remain open to the prospect that this was merely the fulfillment of a crass political deal at the extraordinary expense of our city and its future.
Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.