Incorporating the The Germantown Chronicle & The Northwest Independent

6661 Germantown Ave • Philadelphia, PA 19119 • 215-438-4000 • germantownnewspapers.com

 
 

Deja Vu, 1950


The city of Philadelphia has had only one major political revolution in its history, and that one took place in the election of 1950 with the inauguration of a reform mayor and district attorney in 1951. A major city charter change restructured City Council and it was built around reform at the top and the fact that despite the preceding years of Depression and World War II, Philadelphia grew in population and reached its peak that year of 2.2 million. For the next approximately 20 years we had responsible government, positive land development, modernization and social change. Sadly, much of what was done then has been lost to a political reversal that has brought us right back to where we were and its time the apathy of a neglected electorate become the activism of the voters of 1950 – if they want to have a city worth living in a few years down the road.

Although a powerful Republican political machine ran Philadelphia from about 1875 to 1950, the citizens were complacent as there was job opportunity at decent wages (heavily unionized), safe neighborhoods, good public transportation and housing and taxes at reasonable cost. Of course there was imbalance, and there was always some political skimming, but folks kept coming here and staying as that kind of job security and opportunity was not the norm everywhere. An excellent school system that grew with the population served the large families of the day well, and that was another positive aspect.

But the political class began throwing it away after 1970 and what we have left is a falsified fragment of what the reforms built with a nearly insolvent government running distractions on the one hand, disconnect on the other; particularly when it comes to a significant portion of the population and they are mostly minorities. It has been determined by serious scholarship and annual studies that Philadelphia has the widest gap between the haves and have nots in the nation, but does an exemplary job of paving over that truth and paying off those elected leaders who keep it that way with fat salaries and benefits, (highest in the nation for City Council), often unneeded patronage jobs for friends and relatives, and corruption in oversight agencies, the courts and law enforcement that rival that of the last years of Republican mayor Bernie Samuels. His administrations were the subject of indictments, convictions and prosecution in the years leading up to that famous 1950 revolution and sent many city officials to jail and a good number committed suicide rather than testify.

Truth be told we probably have even more corruption within the city government today than we had then, but what we don’t have is an activist opposition party that brought to light many of the misdeeds and were instrumental in forcing prosecution of a corrupt police force, city agencies rife with bribes and sweetheart contracts for city projects. In 1950 we had four competing major newspapers that often outdid each other with their own investigative work, even if they were owned by folks with a partisan focus. Sadly, most of that is gone, but the need for a major political revolution is very much with us.

We have published the photos of several recently-serving elected officials who have crossed the line and got caught. Others are being investigated now and the trial of a U.S. Congressman with 125 or so witnesses named by the federal prosecutor seems to indicate that things could get complicated. (For the record this newspaper published criticism of Congressman Fattah’s use of public money some time ago and that is what he is charged with today)

The cracks in the foundation of a largely gangster government began unfolding just a few years back when State Senator Vince Fumo, local Democratic Party kingpin went to prison as did Republican leader and deal maker John Perzel.

It took federal investigations to indict and convict so many Municipal Court judges that the entire court had to be closed down and replaced.

Just recently a State Senator and a number of State Reps from the city pled guilty to wrongdoing, taking bribes or gifts and the Ethics Board has been investigating and fining candidates with some frequency in recent months as we near the November election. Just about every one of these situations involved the loss or misuse of city funds or transactions that cost the city money by using staffers for illegal purposes.  Bottom line, the old cliché, “Follow the Money” applies here like no other.

It is the contention of this editorial page that the oversight agencies that are responsible for being watchdogs of city and state money are not doing their jobs and have been twisted up in political chicanery for years. They would be the School Reform Commission and the PICA Board.

How the School Reform Commission allowed the massive salaries and bloated school administration to continue when it was an agency created to rescue a failed city department defies logic. Litigation from some of its practices is still costing the city millions and I am not convinced that, despite changes, it is as reformed and transparent as it needs to be today.

The PICA board with its responsibility over the city budget and five year forecast has been reported on in these pages multiple times. Suffice it to say that this politically controlled board has virtually gone dark on its responsibility to the citizens as to massive pension shortfalls in both contributions and earnings, minimizes the lackluster performance of our real estate tax system that pays only 16% of city obligations, and allows an onerous and abusive combination of wage and business taxes to chase out business while it whistles past the graveyard of multiplying debt with ever decreasing reserves. When one considers that board members are removed for refusing to approve, others resign rather than come forward, the Controller frequently recommends against approval; as does PICA’s own staff, I believe a major Attorney General investigation is justified here.

Finally we have the gift that keeps on giving to elected officials and insiders – land and property use. Philadelphia owns more land and buildings in this city than any other city in the nation, and much of it has been city-owned for years and often kept intentionally off the market (and tax exempt) for the day it can be “given” to insider developers and often along with taxpayer money to develop it . This is one of the most outrageous continuous swindles in city history and there is no doubt that if these properties – essentially owned by the taxpayers – were properly handled and prudently marketed that paying the cost of government would become self-fulfilling, and both the quality of life and level of opportunity in this city would return it to a level playing field of prosperity in a very short time.

There is much more to discuss and changes from the very top are the only way they can happen when a government is this diseased.  What had to be done in 1950 was a combination of focused opposition, law enforcement and legitimate restructuring. The law enforcement process is under way, hopefully the press and a combination of citizen revolt through social media can bring the truth to the forefront and get a disgusted electorate to the polls, and destroy the machine that today owns both parties.

The next government can be Independent of both.

Jim Foster, Editor