Ferrick@Fels: Doing Away With the PHA

October 12, 2011

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Like a divine blackjack dealer with a sense of humor, history likes to hand out ironies. Here is one when it comes to the unsexy topic of municipal authorities. You know whereof I speak: the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Redevelopment Authority and the much-hated Parking Authority, etc.

Authorities have their roots in the Progressive Era and they were intended as a way to reform government. In the late 19th and early 20th century, most big cities were being run by riff-raff politicians who seemed to be interested only in graft and patronage -- or so the reformers thought.

When it came to important matters such as municipal utilities, parks, roads, etc. best not to leave them in the hands of venal politicians (read: Irish and other immigrant stock). Better to divorce them from the hurly burly of politics and establish authorities and commissions who would hire (usually WASP) professionals to do the right thing.

That was then.  This is now.

Today, municipal authorities here and elsewhere are redoubts of old-fashioned patronage.  At the Parking Authority, for instance, it helps a whole lot to be recommended by a ward leader or local elected official and the jobs often go to committee people or their relatives. The Housing Authority has a cadre of professionals, but still has its share of political/tenant patronage.

Meanwhile, City Hall is nearly patronage free.  This is thanks to the 1951 Charter, a reform document meant to undo the top-to-bottom patronage system set up by the(then-Republican) political machine.  In those days, if you wanted a job as a police officer, a City Hall clerk, a school district employee, you had to have a political sponsor. I had several uncles who got their jobs that way.

It was the way things worked and it worked very well

The patronage system supplied the parties with loyal foot soldiers, many of whom doubled as committee people, who manned the polls and got out the vote. (It adds an edge when you know that if your political patron is defeated, you will lose your job as well.)

Consider the fact that the Republican machines of Bois Penrose and the Vare brothers lasted unchallenged for 80 years -- even holding power
nearly 20 years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected and big cities trended Democratic.

The election of Democrat Joe Clark as mayor changed that.The party reformers and civic leaders produced a new charter that replaced patronage (for the most past) with civil service -- another Progressive Era reform, though it was 60 years late coming here.

Other factors have reduced patronage: the rise of public employee unions, several U.S. Supreme Court rulings that limit the right to hire and fire employees on the basis of their politics, the trending in government toward employing college-educated professionals even in what were once blue-collar jobs, such as policing.

Since the authorities were, so to speak, off the books, they kept their patronage powers -- and they often did so in secrecy.  Until recent changes in the public records law, they routinely refused requests for information on their personnel.

Authorities do have a real reason to be. For instance, they can sell bonds to finance projects which are not counted against the city's
debt limit.

At the Parking Authority, on-street parking enforcement was once a small piece of its mission.  Its principal job was to sell bonds to build parking garages to be paid off by the revenue from the parking fees. It was an economic development agency long before it became the scourge of drivers.

The Redevelopment Authority has statutory authority, granted by the state, to declare certain areas blighted, and condemn properties. The
city does not have that power.

And so it goes.

All of this is a prelude to Mayor Nutter's attempt to take over the Philadelphia Housing Authority.  The PHA is in trouble.  It had an executive director in Carl Greene who was brilliant when it came to creative housing policies, but was a troubled dude when it came to women.  It turns out he was a serial groper and the subject of a number of sexual harassment suits, most of which were quietly settled by Greene, some of them for six figures.

Greene was nominally overseen by an independent board, headed by ex-Mayor John Street, that let him do pretty much what he wanted, as long as he paid attention to board politics. A section-8 voucher for so and so. A consulting contract for so and so. A bow to the tenant representative. A legal contract to a favored firm.

It was the price he paid for changing the face of public housing in Philadelphia.

As I said, he was a brilliant man, who could not keep his hands off his employee's private parts.

Post-Greene, the PHA board resigned, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken over the authority to run it temporarily, and Nutter has gone to Harrisburg to get a law passed to put the authority under control of the mayor -- as it is in every other city in the United States. The proposed law would bring civil service into the PHA, 120 years late.

But, the idea has gotten a cool reception from Philadelphia Democrats in the legislature. They are miffed at Nutter for trying to turn the PHA, in effect, into a city department run by the mayor.  They like the existing set up as it is.  It gives them sway over some PHA decisions.  It is their piece of the pie. It's a reform they have come to love.

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist, is writing a regular column to keep the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia. He is currently Senior Editor at Metropolis, a website offering in-depth news, analysis, and commentary about the Philadelphia region.

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