Leadership Is Not A Philadelphia Strength

(June 2019)

"Lead, follow, or get out of the way," is the admonishment for anyone who wants to make change. One can be helpful by making something happen, by assisting the folks who are making things happen, or by letting the folks make something happen without getting in their way. But, in notable cases, Philadelphia governmental officials are failing the leadership challenge across the board. They are leading in the wrong direction. When leadership could prevent wrongdoing, government officials are following along. And, far from getting out of the way, our governmental officials are standing in the way of important change. This is no way to run a one-car funeral, let alone a government.


In a City Hall courtroom this week, the City of Philadelphia is defending itself in a case where it is alleged that city real estate assessment practices are illegal. The city is supposed to revise real estate values for tax purposes each year, but it does not do so. In fact, a few years ago, the city primarily targeted commercial properties for reassessment, despite the fact that singling out only certain parcels for reassessment is illegal.

Given politics, I will not predict how a Philadelphia judge will rule in the case, but there is no question the city did what it is accused of doing. The city publicly bragged about violating the law and focusing its reassessment efforts on non-residential properties. This was a policy choice. This was a strategy.

I do not believe for a second that assessors in the Office of Property Assessment got together and conspired to break the law and illegally increase taxes on certain property owners. No, this was leadership at its worst. Someone sitting in a desk in the Mayor's Office, sitting in the Mayor's Cabinet, or sitting in a corner office in the Municipal Services Building gave an order to have the city's bureaucracy break the law.

The consequences of this failure of leadership go beyond any legal decision or monetary penalties imposed as part of a judgment in a courtroom. The transgression shows a fundamental disregard for the law and a clear reason to lose whatever faith one might have that our city governmental leadership has moral authority.


While our governmental officials are directly implicated in the effort to illegally manipulate the world of real estate assessments, over in the world of policing, a lack of leadership has created an environment where the revolting views of certain law-enforcement officers contribute to a corrosive culture that threatens efforts to effectively police the city. 

Revelations that an independent review of social media posts made by police officers in cities across the nation found that more than 300 Philadelphia officers posted racist and offensive content call into question the ability of many officers to protect and serve our city and all its citizens. As protesters call for action, the city's response has been cautious.

A small number of officers have been placed on desk duty while a larger internal investigation is taking place. The inability of the city to put its policing house in order is a longstanding problem. One recent local media outlet's accounts about the city's failure to adequately discipline police who had received numerous civilian complaints illustrated the serious problems that exist. As a result, in too many ways, Philadelphia endures poor police-community relations, lawsuits and judgments against the city, and threats to the safety of Philadelphia citizens.

From the existence of a "Do Not Call" list of officers so compromised that they cannot be relied upon as witnesses in criminal cases, to too many cases of officers behaving badly to recount in this missive, it is clear that more leadership is in order to improve police/community relations. Simply following along while the bad behavior of a small minority of policy officers threatens the effectiveness of the larger force is no way to address these problems.


Until recently, the best definition of the term "chutzpah" has been the man who killed his parents but begged for mercy from the court because he was an orphan. But, after lauding the idea that patronage workers are effective because they are responsive to their political bosses, the efforts by top Democratic Party officials to unionize employees in the Register of Wills to protect their jobs after their long-serving boss was defeated in the Democratic Primary will serve as the new definition of chutzpah.

Elections, as they say, have consequences. If, after President Sanders takes office in January 2021, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner demand to remain as White House employees, most Philadelphia Democrats would scream as if Bryce Harper failed to hustle on a ground out. I have no doubt that the patronage employees in the Register of Wills office are fine people, but as employees who serve at the pleasure of an elected official, they owe it to the voters to -- if the incoming elected officials demand it -- clear out their desks to make room for new employees who will serve at the pleasure of the incoming official who beat their boss.

Yes, the office itself should be transformed from an elected position to an appointed one and the employees of the Register of Wills should be part of the civil-service system. But, as long as the office exists as an elected position, then political actors must respect the political process. The racial and misogynistic undertones of the move to prevent the incoming Register of Wills from choosing her staff are troubling -- but, the basic failure to get out of the way is an insult to the voters who chose to fire the incumbent.


Every week, city workers collect trash, lend library books, and save lives. The thousands of Philadelphians who report to work each day to serve their neighbors perform challenging, often thankless, work that almost always goes unnoticed and underappreciated. But, when the city's top officials lead in unlawful directions, when they follow along when they should be acting, and when they just won't get out of the way, our government fails us in ways that cannot be ignored.

It is a privilege to serve as an elected or high appointed official. Our city would be much better off without those who have that opportunity but then misuse their power, fail in their responsibility, or stand in the way of change.