Rebecca Rhynhart Runs Philly
Rebecca Rhynhart's first term as City Controller reshaped how the office does its work. She expects more of the same to kick off 2022 and term two.
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When Rebecca Rhynhart was first elected as Philadelphia’s City Controller in 2018, it came almost nine years after she made the switch to government work following a career on Wall Street.
In New York, Rhynhart worked with municipalities to assess their creditworthiness, and saw first hand just how behind the curve local governments were with any sort of process, but especially those involving finances.
She wanted to change that to make a government that works better for all people, and that goal has driven her career ever since. In the process, she has also steadily ascended the government ladder.
Rhynhart first left her Wall Street job and came to Philadelphia in 2008 to work as the City Treasurer under Mayor Michael Nutter. Fourteen years later, on Jan. 3, 2022, she was sworn into her second four-year term as Philadelphia City Controller.
In recognizing the achievement, Rhynhart quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to encapsulate her goals.
“Fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” Ginsburg said at a 2015 Harvard luncheon honoring her with the Radcliffe Medal from the college’s Radcliffe Institute.
The institute was founded to make the same Ivy-League Harvard education accessible to women (who were barred from the university at the time of its founding), and the award recognizes women that have had transformational impacts on society.
It’s the sort of impact Rhynhart often talks about with whoever she can about what she wants for the future of Philadelphia.
“I think there’s a lot of entrenchment in Philadelphia politics, and that needs to be broken up so that government works for the people,” she said in a recent interview with AL DÍA.
To begin that process, Rhynhart was instrumental over her first term in redefining the scope of what operations the City Controller’s Office analyzed.
Before her, what many would say about the office’s role is to check the finances of the government and bring to light any discrepancies.
At first that’s what happened, and Rhynhart’s office found that $33 million from the city’s main cash account had been “misplaced,” as the follow-up news stories often characterized the massive hole.
The exposure ruffled feathers, and that too would become a theme as Rhynhart’s office expanded beyond auditing and investigating just the financial practices of the city. She had come into office with an already expanded view that vowed to look at behavioral health and the parking authority, but as the issues multiplied, so did the job.
“I started to just see a lot of other things that weren’t running properly, that I needed to use my voice for,” said Rhynhart.
In regards to the backlash, she did say in another recent interview with The Philadelphia Citizen that it did catch her off guard at first, but she’s since learned to take it as part of the job in politics.
“I don’t really care if anyone criticizes me for not staying in my lane because I don’t really care about lanes,” Rhynhart told AL DÍA. “I’m gonna do my job — the financial audit function — and I do it well, and then I’m also gonna lean in on other issues.”
An issue that stuck out early and is now a crisis in Philadelphia many equate to the coronavirus is gun violence.
Since 2017, when Rhynhart was elected, Philadelphia has seen an annual increase in gun violence homicides.
In 2020 — the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic — the city saw homicides jump from the already-high 356 from 2019, to 499. In 2021, it hit the highest amount on record of 562. The last time the city even touched 500 was 1990, the third year of then-mayor Wilson Goode’s second term.
The issue today hits home for Rhynhart.
“It’s so horrible as a resident of the city, as a mom,” she said. “People are losing their kids and this should be an issue that every day, city leaders are focusing on with urgency to fix.”
To find potential solutions, Rhynhart’s office initially looked outside of Philadelphia in 2019. That year, her office released a report that analyzed how cities like Oakland, California and New Orleans, Louisiana approached gun violence prevention and eventually significantly reduced their murder rates. Subsequent findings were then proposed for use combating Philadelphia’s growing crisis.
The City Controller’s Office under Rhynhart has also become known for its capacity to visualize data in digestible formats, and gun violence is no different.
Her office has created maps of all the city’s incidents of gun violence (fatal and nonfatal) from 2016 through 2022. Data compiled shows the race, age, and gender of the victims along with information about whether a court case ever occurred or was scheduled for the incident, meaning a perpetrator was caught.
At its core duty of budget analysis, at the end of the Summer, Rhynhart’s office also showed the mayor and City Council the harsh reality of its record $155 million going towards gun violence prevention efforts. In a report released in August, it was revealed that only $33 million — or just 21% — of the $155 million would actually fund short-term efforts, meaning they would combat the here and now of what ended up as 562 homicides in 2021.
On the politics side, Rhynhart also threw in with Councilmember Jamie Gauthier to call out Mayor Jim Kenney’s office over its response to the crisis, labeling it as slow and lacking the urgency required to have an impact.
For many who join the government from a career in the private sector, a common gripe is around the lack of urgency and efficiency when it comes to operations of all kinds. Despite being in government for 14 years now, Rhynhart is no different on that front, and demands a change of attitude in leadership to get the change she sees as possible for the city.
“Because the issues were not fixed with a certain degree of boldness and real determination about wanting to change course to do what works, the problems have just gotten worse,” said Rhynhart. “These aren’t things that you can tackle by just making some changes around the edges.”
And gun violence isn’t the only issue where her office has highlighted a perceived lack of urgency.
Take the city’s overall efforts to diversify its workforce that is charged with delivering services to residents.
Since Rhynhart became City Controller in 2018, her office has put out an annual report analyzing the hiring practices of all of the city’s departments. To get a good gauge of the practices, the office looks at the city’s exempt workforce, which constitute employees hired outside of the city’s civil service system, meaning there is much more discretion from leadership and other decision-makers about who gets hired and fired.
In 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration created Exempt Employee Hiring Guidelines to guide departments on the best hiring practices to prioritize and increase diversity.
To sum up the last four years of exempt hiring diversity progress, Rhynhart had this to offer:
“What we’ve seen is very modest improvement. There’s such slight improvement that it’s not getting at it to the degree that it truly should,” she said.
The latest exempt employee report from 2020 also showed a downward trend in diversity compared to previous years. For one, it hired no new high-level Hispanic staff (those making over $90,000-a-year) and fewer Black executives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the major scapegoat for the Mayor’s Office in light of the shortcoming, but Rhynhart again prefers to look at leadership for answers.
“The pandemic is difficult, it’s a pandemic. But that’s also when true leadership emerges,” she said. “There should still be some ability to get diverse candidates.”
Another audit of note includes a map of trash pickup consistency across the city, showing how some neighborhoods (like Center City and Northeast Philly) have on-time trash pickup 90 to 95% of the time, while others (like West, Northwest and South Philly) are lucky to get between 65 and 75% on-time trash pickup — “which is not good by the way,” according to Rhynhart.
The other to make headlines in the last two years was an investigation into how the Philadelphia Police Department responded to the civil uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd over the Summer of 2020. It specifically revealed how Commissioner Danielle Outlaw sought to use tear gas to disperse a group of protesters blocking I-76. Rather than disperse the crowd that was trapped and blockaded on the expressway, their frantic escapes captured on news cameras and social media brought international ire to the city.
Looking forward to 2022, the police department will once again be a focus of Rhynhart’s office, as it takes a dive into how its $750 million budget is spent. There is also a pending investigation into the Medical Examiner’s office in the aftermath of debacle around the unearthed MOVE remains that were thought destroyed. Both investigations were requested by City Council.
Beyond that, Rhynhart said her office stands ready to initiate audits or investigations for whatever comes up. That remains the focus, she said, despite speculation of her running for another office her own has often called out.
“I think that I want to have the biggest impact that I can have, and I do love my job,” said Rhynhart. “So we’ll see what happens.”