We solicited our readership for questions to ask to Mayor Jim Kenney. After about three weeks of leaving the lines open we received several questions that we forwarded to the Mayor last week. In addition, we sent a few questions of our own.
Below, Kenney addresses street maintenance, the controversial awarding of a contract to attorney Ken Trujillo, DROP payments, the city’s Green Initiative and more. – Pete Mazzaccaro
From Local Readers Ken and Mara Wolfgang: For quite some time now, the streets in and around Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy have been in horrible condition, and are getting worse by the minute. Crews come out and fill in the occasional pothole (usually poorly), but most streets require a complete resurfacing. Driving on these streets is a nightmare, and could easily result in damage to cars and whiplash for drivers and passengers. Are there any plans to remedy this serious problem any time soon?
Kenney: The city has a good track record of getting potholes filled on city maintained streets – we average 85 percent of potholes filled within three days of the initial report. But obviously, this is a big challenge in a city with an aging infrastructure. Citizens should report all street defects to 311. We are working hard to ensure that this provides good customer service and to improve that system accordingly.
The city shares responsibility for maintaining streets in the city with PennDOT (on state routes), and SEPTA (on trolley routes). For trol¬ley routes, the most effective treatment is track removal, but there is often not good consensus among the public about whether trolley routes should be abandoned and which routes. The city and SEPTA will continue to coordinate on strategies and methods to address trolley tracks and the deteriorating track beds, and to seek the resources needed to develop a systematic resolution.
Please be aware that some street defects are not potholes. In areas where there is active redevelopment there is considerable utility work underway which results in ditches being dug in the street. We will reiterate our standards with utility operators to make sure that these ditches are kept as safe as possible and that the pavement is restored in as timely a manner as possible.
Best usage of properties held in the Philadelphia Land Bank
From reader James Hendel: Does the city have the authority to donate land bank properties to either nonprofit and/or for profit organizations for the purpose of creating remodeling trade schools, where there is a serious labor shortage for those skill sets?
And, could the city further donate additional properties to have those students ‘fix-up/renovate’ as On the Job Training and then have those properties utilized to house Veterans; Returning Citizens from prison; The homeless; The Mentally Disabled; Pregnant Teens & others, and perhaps also be used for educational hubs for disadvantaged communities, while keeping those properties in a Trust for those purposes for the future? And if ‘yes’ what would be the process?
Kenney: The mission of the Land Bank is to return vacant properties to productive use. That use could be a home, a business, a community garden or even someone’s side or back yard. While Land Bank properties are generally sold at fair market value, the Land Bank is able to sell properties at a discount – or even almost free – if the intended use serves a public purpose. In addition, the city frequently works with agencies that serve and house those needing assistance, and often makes land for their projects available for free. Anyone interested in acquiring a Land Bank property should go to phillylandworks.com to see the full inventory of available properties owned the Land Bank, city, and Redevelopment Authority.
From reader Tom O’Rourke: How are you progressing on eliminating the DROP program? Eliminating does not mean finding alternate funding sources. Many of us view this as a litmus test for honesty in city government.
Kenney: Eliminating DROP would require an act of City Council and cannot be done unilaterally by the Mayor. At the same time, our latest contract with District Council 33, our largest municipal union, contains important pension changes including a new hybrid plan for future employees, and higher contribution payments by higher earning employees.
Additionally, it is important to note that the majority of the beneficiaries of the DROP program are firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers.
From Local staff: Do you plan to continue Mayor Nutter’s efforts to make Philadelphia a Green City? If so, what specific projects do you have in mind?
Kenney: On Wednesday, November 2, the Office of Sustainability launched the Greenworks Initiative, fittingly from the first green roof on a city owned building at the Free Library of Philadelphia. With the Director of the Office of Sustainability Christine Knapp leading the way, Greenworks is a sustainability plan that will guide the city for the next eight years and beyond. The eight goals laid out by Greenworks are a city where all residents have access to health food and drinking water, a city where we all can breathe clean air, a city where everyone has access to clean affordable energy, a city that is carbon neutral and prepared for climate change, a city where everyone has access to quality parks and green open spaces, a city where every resident has access to safe and affordable transportation, a litter-free Philadelphia that wastes less and recycles more, and a city where all Philadelphians benefit from sustainability education, employment and economic opportunities.
Greenworks will prioritize implementation of these programs in our cities most vulnerable and underinvested neighborhoods and help improve conditions where the most severe inequities exist. We know achieving this will be hard work and local government won’t be able to do it alone. Individuals, neighborhoods and institutions like businesses, schools, and churches are all part of the solution and bring valuable perspectives to the challenges we face.
Taking back the PPA
Local staff: Will you attempt to bring the Philadelphia Parking Authority back under city control?
Kenney: Ideally, it is something that we would like to see happen but given the make up for the state legislature it seems unlikely. However, with former deputy managing Director Clarena Tolson, now serving as the PPA’s new executive director, I’m hopeful that many of the agency’s problems will be addressed.
Local staff: How would your administration address the revenue shortfalls in the event that the Soda Tax is overturned in the courts and fails to begin as planned on Jan. 1?
Kenney: We’re confident that our legal team will win the current litigation taking place against the Philadelphia Beverage Tax and that the January 1 roll out will continue as planned.
Local Staff: What concrete steps will you take to address the culture of corruption which the Democratic Party machine has perpetuated over the last half-century? It appears that you are merely continuing this tradition with actions like your hiring last week of the law firm of Ken Trujillo, a major contributor to your mayoral campaign, for a no-bid contract of $800,000. Taxpayers are paying him $400 an hour, far more than the average rate of $250 an hour for center city firms. Trujillo “paid” you, and now he “plays.”
Kenney: The City Solicitor’s decision to hire the firm where Ken Trujillo is employed had nothing to do with Mr. Trujillo’s political activity, nor did Ken Trujillo ever donate money to my mayoral campaign. The contract was not put out to bid because the soda industry threatened to sue the same day Council passed the tax, so the City Solicitor thought it was unlikely we’d have time to conduct a formal bidding process. That doesn’t mean he didn’t consider several firms, though. He found most city firms were conflicted out because they already had soda industry clients. Of those that remained, Chamerblain and Aronchick were the strongest because they have experience as city solicitors and their firms are experts on taxation and litigation. They also had relationships with the Law Department that predated my administration, so the City Solicitor knew they would work well with our internal team. You also have to understand that in general we don’t bid out contracts like this because we’re not looking for the least expensive option – we’re looking for the best. If we don’t win this lawsuit, we lose pre-K, community schools and Rebuild – so we need the best, and Trujillo and Aronchick are the best.
Recently I signed an executive order expanding and clarifying the rules related to gifts to city employees in the executive branch. This executive order was an important step towards strengthened ethical guidelines for thousands of city employees who regularly interface with the public. In the new order, we specifically identify registered lobbyists as prohibited sources of gifts (executive branch employees may not accept a gift from a prohibited source no matter the value). Other highlights include a clear 12-month prohibition on gifts from other types of prohibited sources, and a new “Gift to the City” category which allows for solicitations to fundraising campaigns for city amenities like the Free Library of Philadelphia as long as no private benefit is accorded to the city employee and no special treatment to the donor is promised or implied, as well as more clearly defined provisions for employees giving gifts to one another.