Checking Kenney's track record against his latest ethics policy
Last week, mayoral candidate and former city councilman Jim Kenney released his campaign’s first policy paper — tackling everything from pay-to-play politics to zero-base budgeting to open data. It’s a fairly comprehensive portrait of good government, especially compared to the existing literature in the mayoral pool. Here, Kenney lays out the groundwork for how he would get to work on improving the city’s ethical standing across all departments.
There are three more documents of a similar depth to come, including one on education to be released today. But first, there are some inconsistencies worth addressing between this latest policy and Kenney’s 23-year track record on City Council.
Nepotism or a helping hand?
Kenney is the first candidate for mayor to take a stance against nepotism in city government. Here is the recommendation from his latest policy paper:
“For many City employees, public service is a proud family tradition — something that should be celebrated and appreciated. However, those with familial relationships should not be influencing or making personnel decisions regarding family members. Even in cases where a family member may be the best fit for the position, the faith that the public places in its government requires that any perception of favoritism or nepotism be avoided. Jim will work with City Council to pass legislation to ban nepotism.”
Twenty years ago, however, that might not have appeared to be the case. In an Inquirer article from Nov. 3, 1995, titled “For Kenney, Politics Boils Down to One Simple Ideal,” the younger councilman defended his then-mentor Vince Fumo and condemned allegations of pay-to-play. But he was forthright to reporter Dianna Marder about one string that Fumo pulled for him — getting Kenney’s father, a lifelong firefighter, a job as a safety specialist with the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA):
“After his retirement, the elder Kenney worked for a time as the fleet safety manager for Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., which publishes The Inquirer and Daily News,” Marder reported. “Later, he went to work for the Delaware River Port Authority. Yes, Kenney says, ‘I got him the job through Vince.’ ”
Another Inquirer article from the same week called attention to the “system of patronage” on the rise at DRPA. Many of the other alleged parties got jobs through connections to former State Sen. Fumo. The safety specialist position that Kenney’s father landed reportedly paid $41,348 a year. At the time, Kenney said that “I will be the first to admit that his appointment there was recommended through a political process. But I have no problems at all with his qualifications and experience. I think they've gotten a bargain, frankly.”
On Wednesday, however, Kenney told AL DÍA that it wasn’t him nor Fumo who secured the job. At least that’s not how he remembered it. Kenney Sr., now 80, has been out of the DRPA for quite some time, and Kenney recalls that his father was assisted by Theodore V. DeMarino, a former firefighter turned DRPA employee who received one of the “patronage” positions, according to the Inquirer.
“I do recall that his connection was Chief DeMarino,” Kenney said. “He was the one who was instrumental in telling my dad about the position and getting him in there.”
Kenney’s father was no doubt qualified for the job. He was the first safety officer in the Philadelphia Fire Department’s history, worked with paramedics and provided instructional training at the Fire Academy — all relevant qualifications for the DRPA position.
Two weeks ago, Kenney spoke to returning citizens at a press conference, and opened with the anecdote about a young man (no relation) in South Philly who was struggling with a life of crime, drug addiction, and incarceration. The unnamed man told the then-councilman that he didn’t want this life anymore. Kenney helped get him a position as a day laborer in the Parks and Recreation department and, by proxy, get his life back.
Kenney’s intentions are hardly dubious. There’s certainly a difference between helping a down-and-out individual find work and appointing all of your cousins and uncles to positions within your own government office. The issue this highlights is the thin line between nepotism and the truism that “it’s not what you know, but who you know” in the job market, be it the public or private sector.
There are also patronage-exempt cases of elected and board certified employment.
For full disclosure, Kenney says that his son is probation officer, but he passed a test to achieve the job.
“The problem is basically that people have a right to apply for and compete for employment,” he said on Wednesday. “If you’re hiring people as a right, and you’re the direct supervisor and direct decider of who gets hired, that’s a different situation.”
The question is, who draws that line? What constitutes an ethical appointment to city work? Kenney’s policy doesn’t say.
The ethics of funding
The Board of Ethics may be the branch of government best suited to weigh in on the above issue, and Kenney’s good government plan calls to improve that very office. Despite the board’s ever-expanding duties, Kenney’s policy notes that it has operated on a $1 million annual budget since its inception in 2006. In 2011, Council actually allowed a “strangling” budget cut that brought the board down to $810,000. It was reported that no one — councilman Kenney included — spoke up:
“The board asked this year for $130,000 more to staff up for the lobbyist work,” the Inquirer’s Chris Brennan wrote. “Nutter left that out of his budget, and Council did not act on a follow-up request.”
Kenney did, however, vouch for every piece of ethics legislation in his council tenure. Injecting $250,000 into the board is consistent with his record as well as the rest of his current policy. He’s even in agreement with the Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance in their call to expand disclosure on outside employment.
He himself never hid his second job while he was in City Hall, but its terms and conditions weren’t as clear as the policy suggests.
In 2002, Kenney took a part-time consulting gig with the architectural firm Vitetta in order to supplement his city salary ($82,000 a year at the time, according to the Inquirer). It wasn’t until recently that Kenney disclosed how much he was making with the group. For clarity, it was never required. But he and all of the other mayoral candidates were asked to publicize their tax returns from the last three years. They all fully obliged except for Milton Street, and Lynne Abraham who presented only one of the three requested tax returns. Kenney’s forms said that he earned $64,055 with Vitetta in 2013.
The job was described as “procuring government business for the architectural and engineering firm that is restoring City Hall.” Vitetta had three contracts with Philadelphia that pre-dated Kenney’s time. And in deference to conflict-of-interest laws, Kenney vowed to abstain from all City Council votes that pertained to the company’s work with the city, and to only lobby work with outside governments. Kenney self-imposed these terms before the Board of Ethics was even born.
Kenney said last week that in his 13 years juggling his part-time job and council he only had to remove himself from a council vote “two or three times.”
One such occurrence was in 2008. City Council introduced a 1.2 percent tax hike on hotel rooms to help cover the unanticipated construction costs of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Kenney went on record saying he would abstain from voting on the tax “...because he works for an architectural firm, Vitetta, that designed the expanded center.” He had already come out defending the project’s overrun costs. And two weeks later, the bill passed 17-0 in City Council. Not that Kenney’s vote mattered, but by his own word, he should have abstained.
Last week, Kenney told AL DÍA that the connection between Vitetta and the hotel room tax is “a bit extraneous” and said that the issue did not “directly benefit my firm.” Vitetta was subcontracted for the job through another group; they did not get a direct bid through the city. But if that was the case, why pledge to abstain in the first place? Who defines conflict of interest?
On a separate note, Vitetta now owes the city $204,903 in delinquent taxes. Philadelphia filed a tax lien against the company on April 17, 2013, and the case remains open, to our knowledge. Kenney’s policy paper says that City Council members’ second jobs “...should be scrutinized to ensure that their duties to the City and its taxpayers are not negatively impacted by this second job.” There’s no law that says Kenney’s unique situation constitutes a conflict of interest for a city government employee. But it is impossible not to note that his outside employer’s delinquent taxes are almost enough to beef up the Board of Ethics’ budget.
When it comes to pay-to-play politics, it’s not just Kenney. Every politician is guilty to some degree.
Yet Kenney now vows to drive down pay-to-play’s presence. He was one of the original architects of legislation to “limit the influence that campaign money plays in city government.” And as mayor he says he would take transparency one step further through two steps, first by making political donors disclose their revenue streams. Eventually, he wants to wean the city off special interest group financing and transition into publicly financed municipal elections, but that the plan takes a backseat to funding the education crisis.
“It’s an inherent problem that everybody faces,” Kenney said last week. “If you’re asking people to contribute to your campaign, if you’re asking people to support you, you would suspect that you would be friendly and accessible to them. Unless there’s total public financing of elections, you’re never going to be able to avoid that. I support that after the school district is fully funded, not before.”
So should it matter that Kenney voted for the cigarette tax, but not the soda tax to close the budget gap for Philly schools? Big tobacco has never contributed to his campaigns. On the other hand, local bottling magnate Harold Honickman and the Teamster Locals (who transport the goods) have contributed $43,000 collectively to Kenney since 2007, including $7,300 this election season. Not bank-breaking amounts, but a significant history of support nonetheless.
Kenney wasn’t the only member of council to spurn this stop-gap school funding measure over another. Kenney told AL DÍA he thought the soda tax was a badly presented and very complicated piece of legislation. Nonetheless, schools were about to close. Mayor Nutter negotiated another property tax — just one year after AVI went into effect — and Council got behind it. They had no choice, really.
“I voted to raise property taxes in an election year, because the schools were going to close,” Kenney said last week. “We had just gone through AVI and people just got whacked pretty good and having it happen to them again was not a good way to go.”
Whether the soda tax was truly poor legislation or whether Kenney’s (and other council members’) backers didn’t want him to tax their sugary profits is hard to say. But one thing is for sure: realistically, such quick-fix taxes won’t be going away anytime soon. And which ones get pushed, and which ones don’t, will be determined by who they affect.
In his campaigning over the last two months, Kenney has said the city can’t wait on “superman from Harrisburg” to solve the funding crisis. He has said on numerous occasions before that we need to expect to fund the schools from within our own city departments. Last week, discussing the stop-gap taxes, he said:
“I think the state should live up to their responsibility and fund public education. That’s the real solution. While we do these stop-gap measures and band-aids every year, and the state doesn’t step up and do what they’re going to do, yeah, that’s a big problem,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to have that problem as long as the state doesn’t have these responsibilities”