[ small-time politics ]
The Apple Storage building has been, for years, a monument to blight looming over South 52nd Street. So members of Cedar Park Neighbors, a 52-year-old civic association in West Philadelphia, were elated in December when Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners presented a multimillion-dollar plan to convert it into 112 loft-style apartments. "Apple Lofts" won swift approval from the civic, and district Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell seemed poised to recommend approval to the city's Zoning Board.
The only problem was, no one asked Shawn Kelly.
The president and founder of an organization he calls the Community Achievement Association (CAA), Kelly used his position as the leader of an apparently slighted neighbors' group to garner attention and rally voices hostile to the project, with claims it would raise taxes and disturb toxin-laced soil. Blackwell, normally decisive in zoning decisions, backed off, first requesting a continuance to block approval until she could review the matter and later telling City Paper she may "leave the decision to the [Zoning Board of Adjustments]." Her neutrality has put the project in limbo while the ZBA lets competing groups duke it out in public forums.
On the surface, it sounds like your average gentrification battle. But look beyond the sparring neighbors, and a portrait of Philadelphia's sputtering old-time political machine comes into focus. Investigation revealed that CAA is little more than a single politically connected person — Shawn Kelly — and that it seems to have been created mostly to serve as a receiver for poorly monitored city money steered by the councilwoman to Kelly's pocket, and for donations wrested from local businesspeople. A committeeman, Kelly is a small-time player, the bottom of the food chain in Philly politics, and the funding he receives from the city is in the four digits. But multiply that by 1,600 committeepeople citywide and a $1.98 million, Council-controlled fund that appears tailor-made to keeping them satisfied, and it's a recipe for cronyism and kickbacks run amok.
After all, as committeeman in the 46th Democratic Ward, where Blackwell is both ?district councilwoman and ward leader, Kelly's primary role is as a glorified vote-getter. Kelly tells CP he was "appointed to the 46th Ward" by Blackwell in 2006. He founded his association the same year. Committeepeople are in many cases appointed by ward leaders, to ensure both loyalty and shared interests. Blackwell has well-documented ties to municipal labor unions: Kelly is a retired firefighter and was active in the Fire Fighters' Union until a work-related injury put him on disability — the same year he was handpicked as a committeeman.
Committeemen are charged with providing cleanups, block parties and other minor "constituent services" that demonstrate their higher-ups' benevolence. In return, they receive political favor, campaign dollars — and, in Kelly's case, city funds.
Kelly has made tangible contributions: organizing volunteers and partnering with Cedar Park Neighbors (in more peaceable times) to conduct cleanups and install planters on a few blocks of Baltimore Avenue. To further these efforts, according to Blackwell, the CAA received about $4,000 in the past two years from the Philadelphia Activities Fund — a little-known, poorly advertised pool of money run out of the Department of Parks and Recreation but administered by councilmembers — which is often used to dispense small grants for community-service groups. "It's a wonderful little program. It's the only thing we have in Council. ... We just tried to come up with some way to help [Kelly] because he had complained for years about paying out of pocket," Blackwell says.
But Kelly — and potentially many others like him — shouldn't have received a penny from the fund, according to the city's own guidelines.
Leo Dignam, deputy commissioner for programs at Parks, says his department processes applications and cuts checks, but councilmembers select the recipients. Parks doesn't require 501(c)(3) status, but a recipient must be "a legitimate nonprofit ... with a board, a name and a bank account."
Kelly claims CAA is legitimate and is registered as a 501(c)(3) — but that registration appears nowhere in IRS records. And Monica Allison, president of Cedar Park Neighbors, says that she hasn't seen any evidence of other board members or regular meetings. Kelly did not respond to inquiries about the composition of his organization's board after an initial interview.
More disturbing, there is no system in place to prevent city money from being handed out to one-man, politically connected "nonprofits" like Kelly. Dignam says oversight of the Activities Fund lies only with the district councilperson. "Most councilpeople do mailings in their district and know what groups are legitimate. ... If the group is smart enough, savvy enough to fill out the application and send it in, they usually get funded," he says.
And while PACs or other explicitly political entities are nominally excluded from applying for Activities Fund grants, ?Parks does not require applicants to reveal political ties, so, Dignam says, ?there is "no way for [the Parks Department] to know" if recipients have ??campaigned for the councilperson that supported their grant request.
This nearly $2 million loophole actually grew from $1.43 million last fiscal year. After CP brought the fund to the attention of Deputy Controller Harvey Rice of the city Controller's Office, he issued a statement saying the controller is "aware of concerns around these funds. As staffing permits, we are planning to conduct an audit."
Kelly also has solicited money from businesses in the area, assuring them donations are tax deductible through his (nonexistent) 501(c)(3) status, a claim reiterated in a CAA information packet he distributes. Sean Dorn, who owns a business and leases commercial space on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue, says both he and a former business tenant were approached by Kelly, seeking donations.
"He just didn't understand that you are supposed to be a nonprofit registered with the IRS, with a board of directors and bylaws," Dorn wrote via email. "He thinks you can just be a guy with clipboard ... and then demand a payment that will go directly into his own pocket."
But that tactic has worked in winning city funds — and, apparently, in halting development. It's an indication of how badly a new zoning code is needed that a lone individual might manage to block an otherwise-popular development plan. While new zoning rules would, in theory, prevent bogus neighborhood organizations from popping up overnight to torpedo projects, the Activities Fund is a study in just how easily such regulations — when ill-enforced — can be trampled.
What would motivate that kind of effort is another question. Kelly says he just wants to give a voice to residents west of 52nd Street, where there is no civic association. But Kelly, who lives east of 52nd, appears by neighbors' accounts to be speaking primarily for himself. Given his history of hitting up businesses for donations, some neighbors speculate his interest in Apple Lofts is at least partly financial. "When people hear 'a million dollars,' everybody sees it as the money train," says Allison of Cedar Park Neighbors.
Or maybe it's just an attempt by Kelly to shore up his dwindling clout as a minor political player in the Democratic City Committee. Blackwell herself seemed surprised and impressed, saying, "I didn't know he had that leadership ability, I've never seen him do anything other than clean," adding, "but you never know what motivates a person."