by Jay A. McCalla
In a city government where the term “staff turnover” is a frightening – and rarely used — profanity, new DA Larry Krasner committed a constitutive sin: He fired deadwood. He fired that deadwood immediately upon taking office, sparing employees weeks of nervous hand wringing as he scrutinized them.
The Krasner high command was in place within a few days of him taking the oath of office with the added twist that the new folks were all appointed on an interim basis. This is an unusually “in your face” management technique designed to keep managers from becoming complacent. Nothing focuses the energies of a careerist with a mortgage more than the removal of job security.
Krasner’s “purge” of 31 employees has received more criticism than praise and for all the wrong reasons. Given he received the conspicuous support of Black Lives Matter and ex-offenders, a certain segment of Philadelphia is predisposed to view him ungenerously. And, there is the misperception that these non-civil service positions (appointees) should not be disturbed.
But, here are the facts. Lynne Abraham ran that office for about 20 years. Seth Williams took over and dismissed virtually no one over the course of his two terms. Krasner’s “purge” is the first to occur in almost 30 years. It was overdue.
When one looks across most government offices – Mayor, Controller, Sheriff, Register of Wills, Redevelopment Authority, Philadelphia Housing Authority, PPA, etc., the vast majority of positions that could be purged won’t be purged because the occupants have political or social connections. So, old hires typically get overlaid with new hires. Budgets swell. Nobody goes home, if they can help it.
When Councilpersons Frank DiCicco and the late Joan Krajewski retired from government, they made certain their office staffs were absorbed onto other payrolls, while their elected replacements brought in a brand new team. Councilperson Bill Greenlee retained the full staff of the late Councilperson David Cohen. Former Councilperson Wilson Goode Jr. lost reelection but got a staff job — and a raise — at City Council. Nobody goes home, if they can help it.
Heck, there are senior administration figures who have been around since Mayor Wilson Goode and Ed Rendell.
I was amused to read a news report of an assistant district attorney who complained of being fired “without warning.” Without warning? What did he think the November, 2017 election was about?
Part of our problem is that few people — be they inside the system or outside — associate elections with change — of any sort. We are essentially on the same trajectory, at the same pace, as we were under Mayors Rendell, Street and Nutter — despite their combined six citywide elections. None used their elections or tenure to take the city towards fundamental change in any area. Our schools suffer a multi-decade, downward drift. Our pension fund is almost comically out of whack. We are the poorest large city in America.
Even when a candidate explicitly promises change (as Jim Kenney did with the notorious stop- and-frisk) they frequently renege after the election (as Jim Kenney did with the notorious stop-and-frisk).
Krasner is the only candidate for office, in my recollection, who offered a sharply different vision that convincingly broke with the past. He did not rely on slogans like “tough cookie” or “smart on crime.” He spoke in full sentences to tell us he can make our justice system more just.
Personnel is policy and Krasner cannot change the direction of his office if his senior people are committed to plea bargains instead of actual trials. Abraham and Williams had established the unspoken practice of not prosecuting cops. Krasner needed to change his personnel in order to reverse that 30-year-bias.
Krasner will make mistakes, but, take heart that he doesn’t carry the corrupting baggage of a career politician. In him, we may be pleasantly surprised.