Chairman-elect Rick Hellberg, left, and insurgent ward leader Mike Cibik, right.
Last night, Philly Republicans ousted longtime party chairman Vito Canuso. It was a victory for the Republican “insurgency,” a group of Philly Republicans who've been trying to rock the boat and reinvigorate their party.
Canuso has been accused by his foes of having gone outside party bylaws to oust various elected ward leaders. Opponents also claim that Canuso was not, in fact, duly elected. In 2010, the Republican State Committee declared the chairmanship vacant.
That Philly's GOP could use some new vigor was apparent during the role call, conducted by Matthew Wolfe, who's been a leader of the rebellion. Many of the city's Republican wards either have no ward leader or have a contested ward leader. Of the city's 66 wards, only 20 were represented in the vote to replace Canuso with financial consultant and one-time challenger to US Rep. Chaka Fattah, Rick Hellberg, who received a unanimous vote last night.
Many ward leaders, of course – presumably among them some who still support Canuso - simply didn't show up.
The mood in the room was excited, and several politicos got up to make speeches. Ward leader Kevin Kelly, whose election Canuso had tried to throw out, probably gets top prize for thinly-veiled disses: Referring only to “certain people” being uninterested in “coming together” to bolster the party, Kelly said:
“Certain people have no interest in doing that. The things they have to gain from the current situation – and I mean personally, down to one or two people, they couldn't get in the market of free ideas. What they get is what's given to them as payment for what you just heard: vacant wards, wards that haven't been represented for decades.
… There are certain people who do not want to win elections, who do not want to build the Republican party. This party can't suffer because certain people can't tear the leather in the real world. Thank you for being here, it has been a long struggle. And for folks that have only come for the last few years, understand that every other avenue has been exhausted.”
Hellberg himself had this to say about the party's former leadership: Our founding fathers knew that the rule of law is the most important thing. If the leadership of the Republican City Committee had learned those lessons from our founders, we wouldn't be here this evening. If elected to this position as Chairman I can tell you the first thing I will do is we will work everything we do by the letter of the bylaws.”
He also outlined what might emerge as a local republican platform, attacking Mayor Nutter's plan to raise an additional $94 million for the city through the Actual Value Initiative (the administration says it is just “capturing” a net increase in real estate value).
This was also phrased in thinly-veiled name-calling.
“When the ruling elite tell us a $94 million increase in real estate [assessments] is not a tax increase … we need to give Philadelphians a voice,” Hellberg said.
As for how Canuso and his wing of the city's Republican establishment will respond to the vote, Larry Otter, serving as Counsel to for the 59th Ward, told the audience:
"Yeah, I expect a challenge. Let's be realistic. But," he said, apparently addressing "certain people" not in the room, "Bring it on. We'll see you in court."
The state-controlled School Reform Commission's plan to close 64 schools and privatize management of potentially all that remain open has sparked widespread opposition across Philadelphia. The plan would also outsource all blue collar work, and today members of SEIU 32BJ led thousands of protesters down Broad Street.
More than 2,000 workers―from bus drivers to maintenance workers―have received layoff notices.
Marchers chanted, “They say cut back, we say fight back,” and “Hey Corbett you can't hide, we can see your greedy side.”
Fourteen union members were arrested after blocking the streets in front of School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad, according to the Inquirer's Kristen Graham (she has photos too).
PA school privatization diverts taxpayer dollars to fundamentalists and lobbyists, according to Times investigation
A Pennsylvania program that gives tax credits to corporations in exchange for donations to private schools uses politically connected middlemen to send taxpayer dollars to religious fundamentalists, according to a New York Times investigation published today.
The Times also reported on tax-credit programs―which are effectively the same as school vouchers, turning over public money to pay for private school tuition―in Georgia, Florida and Arizona.
In Pennsylvania, 200 organizations control more than $40 million donated by corporations and take an “administrative fee” of up to 20 percent. Two of those organizations, Bridge Educational Foundation and Bravo Foundation, allegedly coordinate their “scholarship-giving" with elected officials in the state.
Bridge has served as the middleman for more than $650,000 donated by natural-gas drilling company XTO Energy (now owned by Exxon).
Follow Isaiah Thompson on Twitter for updates on the city's new vacant land policies.
The city today unveiled its much-anticipated comprehensive plan for how it will sell and dispose of its massive inventory of vacant land. City officials also announced the almost-launching of a "beta" web interface that will serve as the city's "front door" for prospective buyers of vacant land, and administered by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (formerly the RDA).
As we've written about extensively, it's been a long wait. When Mayor Michael Nutter took office, and appointed former RDA Director Terry Gillen to the helm of that agency, the city's vacant land policy was something of a shambles: policies on sales prices and conditions were vague; enforcement of redevelopment contracts was often non-existent; and the RDA, under former leadership, had kept many of its records on … paper.
The idea was to fix all of that, first by essentially imposing a moratorium on the sale of land for less than "fair market value" (except in the case of affordable housing) while the administration straightened out its records, established new policies, and worked its way through a backlog of old land deals.
But it's been a while — at least a year-and-a-half, since a working group was formed to create a comprehensive policy — and frustration over the city's hesitancy in making vacant land available has been growing, noticeably in the form of various bills in City Council and a push by community groups and Council members, especially Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez, to establish a land bank.
In a meeting with reporters today, PRA director Jon Carpenter and Deputy Managing Director Bridget Collins-Greenwald revealed the fruits of the nearly two years now that they and other members of a working group have been coming up a new finalized land policy and the beta version (we were asked, several times, to mention the 'beta' bit) of the web-based "front door" access system.
None of this is online yet, but your faithful Hall Monitor went ahead and scanned the paper version of the new comprehensive vacant land policy for you, doodles and all.
[Download the finalized vacant land policy in (non-text) pdf format here]
The comprehensive policy describes how land will be sold for different uses, and which uses qualify for less-than-fair-maket prices. It re-officializes the city's side lot program, allowing homeowners to acqure lots adjacent to their houses, and gives official definitions for community garden and urban agriculture uses of vacant land.
The new site allows prospective buyers to search for vacant properties, apply to purchase them, track their progress, and see an upfront price for the property (that might be subject to change).
Those prices are being determined by an internal mass-assessment project — and aren't going to be listed for ("hopefully," PRA director John Carpenter emphasized) a few weeks. Users can file applications as soon as the new site goes live (it hadn't as of publication time but was expected to at any moment), but might also want to wait until the official launch of the site in June.
What's different in the new system (and what isn't)? A quick breakdown:
— Users can search for vacant properties via a map or by filtering data by street, zip code, etc.
— Prospective buyers can see prices upfront, apply to purchase on-line, and track the status of their application as it moves through whichever agency owns the land.
— Land will be sold for below "fair market value" for a few uses other than affordable housing, as was previously the case. These uses include: side lots, economic and community development projects, community gardens and urban farms (more on that to come), and for other uses restricted by a self-amortizing second mortgage (again: we'll get to that in a later post).
— Pretty cool new map of 9,000 vacant properties for sale by PRA, PHDC, and Public Property.
— Side yard sales are back!
Not so new:
— The current system retains the practice of requiring City Council's authorization of land transfers. Because of Council tradition, the body almost always defers to the District Council person, giving that individual effective veto power over all land deals in his or her district.
— Individuals will be able to track their own applications to purchase vacant land; they (or the rest of the public), however, won't be able to other peoples' applications or the status thereof. Similarly, the PRA will keep track of the reason — Councilmanic prerogative, a lack of response from the buyer, whatever — for a terminated redevelopment agreement; but the public won't get to see that information.
— While PRA is the new "front door" to buying land, buyers still have to navigate the (often entirely different) processes of up to three different agencies.
— Side yard sales are back!
A Hall Monitor salute to our budding City Council archivers (and a quiet rebuke of the city for the fact that we need them to)
Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
You know what we need more of in this city? Data. Info. Stuff anybody can access and that lets us write better stories, investigate more efficiently, and get to know our city better. That's true for professional journalists, amateur bloggers, engaged citizens, and also robots that spy on us – but spying robots is just the price we pay for freedom.
With that in mind, CP salutes two individuals who've stepped up to provide better public information.
City Council Matters (@citycouncilblog), a blog started by local man (and Temple Law School grad) Timothy R. Holwick, has been doing yoeman's work covering City Council meetings and hearings (including sitting through hours of budget hearings - which are fascinating, but only to a distinctly geeky subset of the general population).
Currently, the only way to check up on a Council meeting you might have missed is to pull the transcript, which isn't available until at least a week, and usually longer, after the meeting itself. You can watch the meetings on-line via a live feed, a service overseen by the city's Office of Technology, but that service is sorely lacking: the site offers no archive of past meetings and no way to watch this taxpayer-paid-for footage on demand.
No way, that is, until City Council Matters began archiving audio of City Council meetings. This is an immense service to all of us.
Also getting a half-salute (a full one to come pending results) is Councilman Bobby Henon who, just weeks after embarrassing the city by developing a 311 app in a fraction of the time it's taken the city not to develop said app, has embarked on a brave mission to archive *video* of City Council meetings .
This initiative originated, by way of disclosure, via a tweet by yours truly, which read:
@BobbyHenon live-streaming Channel64 on his own website. Councilman, make it *even cooler* by archiving for public? Hm?
To which the Councilman responded:
Loved your idea of online archive of Council meetings. My staff's working on it. Stay tuned for launch. Keep ideas coming.
Welcome as these efforts are, they beg the question of why the city's Office of Information Technology hasn't done more itself to innovate. To be fair, we've never asked the city to archive videos of Council hearings or make them available on demand; still, maybe we shouldn't have to.
The fiscal crisis facing our public schools is being exploited by a movement to privatize public education, break unions and subject students to high-stakes test-prep regimes. But it is a crisis nonetheless — one that requires long-term solutions, immediate band-aids and, critically, a substantial commitment from Philly’s largest stakeholders.
As I’ve reported, the state, whose School Reform Commission (SRC) has controlled Philly schools since 2001, has underfunded poor districts for decades. This fiscal year, Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislature slashed nearly $300 million of Philly’s funding. The district now faces a $218 million deficit for the coming year and a $1.1 billion cumulative five-year shortfall.
“We have a dysfunctional conversation here,” Republican City Councilman Dennis O’Brien told the SRC last week. “We have a five-year plan [from the district] with no anticipated revenue from the state until 2016 or ’17? What the hell is up with that?”
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CP has learned that the Philadelphia law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg LLP, known for its litigation over "Stop and Frisk" policies and other civil rights cases, is considering filing a lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia for the ban on serving free meals in city parks, announced by Mayor Michael Nutter about two months ago.
Attorney Paul Messing would not comment other than to confirm to CP that his firm is investigating the matter, and litigation is under consideration.
Mark McDonald, a spokesman for the mayor, told CP that the city has "received notice of intent to sue," but had no other comment on the matter.
Brian Jenkins, the executive director of Chosen 300 Ministries, which serves meals both indoors and outside, and who has been a leading critic of the ban, also declined to comment on any potential lawsuit other than to make the general statement that he would view a lawsuit as a "last step" and hopes the city is open to compromise on the issue.
Jenkins has frequently called the ban "unconstitutional," saying it violates the religious freedom of those who feel "called by God" to serve meals outdoors.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit against the city Orlando for a similar ban.
Just kidding: In response to a visit to Philadelphia tomorrow by Gov. Corbett to address the city's Chamber of Commerce, various groups are planning a "massive" protest of the governor's proposed cuts to education, medical programs for the poor and food stamps, and his proposed elimination of general assistance welfare. (You can read more about the possible implications of those cuts, especially to general welfare, in my colleague Daniel Denvir's article here).
Among the groups we can expect to see outside the event at the Prince Theater at 14th and Chestnut: Decarcerate PA, Fight For Philly, ACT UP Philadelphia, Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, and, of course, Occupy Philadelphia.
At-Large Democratic Councilman Wilson Goode made yesterday what sure sounded like a ringing endorsement for the mayor's plan to fund the school district through a citywide reassessment.
Mayor Nutter has proposed $94 million in funding for the district, to come from anticipated revenue from the Actual Value Initiative, which would reassess properties citywide. His administration has said the reassessment will "catch" an overall increase in the city's property values.
So far, the idea has received mixed support on Council. Those who do support the plan couch their support more in terms of the School District's dire need than in their enthusiasm for raising extra revenue via AVI (Councilman Bill Green has pointed out once or twice that Council could always choose not to collect extra from the move — by, for example, paying back anything extra in tax reductions).
But Councilman Goode today offered what sure seemed like a defense of the mayor's logic.
The School District is entitled by law to a certain portion of Philly's real estate taxes. because our properties were under-valued.
The schools, Goode said in Council today were "losing that share for those years," and the District is now "simply asking us to do what we were supposed to do," by requesting that Philly hand over much of the revenue generated by the reassessment.
Goode says he's prepared to vote for more funding for the schools, and mentioned tweaking the current balance from the city's receiving 42% of the property tax and the District 58% to a 40/60 split instead — on one condition: the School District can't ask for any more. And if it does, Goode said, "We move back to local control."
At-Large Dem. Councilman Bill Green, who at one point seemed to be trading speeches with Goode and has adamantly opposed the linking of AVI to school funding, describes Goode's remark as "a rationale for why the mayor's proposal is reasonable."
Green (who, we should point out, is probably going to run for mayor) counters that Council has been deciding on a yearly basis how much to give the schools anyway — and points out that the moratorium on reassessments was put in place by ... Mayor Nutter.
O'Brien's outburst: Former speaker wants to know "What the hell is up" with Harrisburg plan for five years of no increase for schools.
What the hell is up with Harrisburg?
At-Large Republican Councilman Dennis O'Brien might know better than anyone else on Philadelphia's City Council — and he offered his own opinion on Tuesday.
During hearings Tuesday on a request by the School Reform Commission for more than $90 million in support from the city to help plug a $300 million budget gap, O'Brien — former Speaker of the House — veritably erupted, delivering to the three-person panel before him (which included SRC chairman Pedro Ramos) the following Jeremiad, in which he roasted Mayor Nutter and Governor Corbett for asking City Council to come up with the extra money while delivering a five-year plan for the District that shows no increased revenue from the state.
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