PlanPhilly

Lynne Abraham Q&A: Full transcript

PlanPhilly: It seems like the candidates have had to field a lot of questions about small issues. Things like trash pick up, bike lanes, parking on the city hall apron, street cleaning, that kind of stuff. To me, it just seems really trivial, compared to the massively big problems in the city: chronically underfunded schools, poverty rate, the still-high violence rate. Can you as a mayor fix a couple of those big problems while still addressing all those little things? And do the little things matter when you compare it to things like poverty or schools?

Lynne Abraham: I will do the best I can to get the big things on the road to being fixed. If there is any candidate that promises that they’re going to fix the school system in their first four years, its absolutely untruthful and unworkable. We didn’t get this way in four years, and we’re not going to rectify it in four years.

As to the second part of your question, and then I’ll go back and fill in if you wish: to some people, the big picture – education, jobs the economy, economic development, the pension – the big five six or ten, whatever they are, are the big picture.

But to the people living in the communities, their issues are huge to them. The reason they are huge to them, I believe, is that they feel that government has not paid attention to their issues and needs. So when they can’t get basic services out of Center City Philadelphia, or wherever the government is situated in their community, whether it’s a council persons office or a state representatives office or any one of the other offices: sheriff, courts, whatever. These things fester and grow. People become frustrated, disillusioned, and tuned out. These groups want their own issues paid attention to. And there is nothing that I’ve seen or heard that’s really small.

This morning was aid to autistic and developmentally disabled – either intellectually, physically, emotionally or otherwise – people. There is a lot of them. There might not be as many as going to the Philadelphia public schools by far, but these people of whatever age are living at home without the capacity to reach whatever their human potential is. How is the city going to deal with that?

For some people, turning this city into a greener city, along with water purity, and air and so forth are the issues of– well, one of the ways we can make the city greener and healthier is bicycles. And to them, their issue of bicycles is the lodestar for that group. It’s their whole purpose. As part of a thriving city, to have people walk more, be more environmentally friendly and to use bike share, to cut down on traffic, pollution and everything else. To make the city more maneuverable.

And cities like Philadelphia are old. If you’ve lived here, you know – you worked at Fox Rothschild so you definitely know – Market Street is like a big street. Kennedy Boulevard is a big street. Take a block east, well, from Market, south. Walnut Street is two lanes essentially. One parking, two moving. But one of those lanes is a bus zone and you can’t really move. So most of our streets are two lanes or one lane. For example Spruce Street now is one lane parking, one lane running and one lane bicycles and others. So essentially you’re moving people around in one lane of traffic. So for the bicycle people, and I accept their issue, we’re trying to get more cars off the road so the city will be healthier, people will walk more, people will exercise more, and their way for transportation for people who don’t have the wherewithal for a car, a bicycle is a perfect way to save money but to get person from place here to place there.

So, I don’t think any of these issues are trivial. Do they stack up in the sense of import to the whole world’s great big issue? Probably not but to them they are really important and they’ve been overlooked and neglected and they’re working with the same problems and obstacles they’ve always worked with. So, they want somebody to pay attention to them and try to help them resolve some of these issues that really are important to their quality of life. So, I think they’re important.

PP: You started to mention it, I think – JFK, Market are both very large streets. At the Mobility Mayoral Forum, you didn’t seem that supportive of the idea of putting protected bike lanes on those streets, and I guess my question there is really, why do you think the cycling advocates get so worked up over bike lanes?

LA: Well, as I said, they didn’t mention Market Street, they mentioned Kennedy Boulevard. My position was with regards to a protected bike lane on Kennedy Boulevard was that, for at least… lets see… two huge blocks, 18th to 19th, 19th to 20th, are three gigantic apartment buildings. Most, but not all, catering to older people. And protected bike lanes, and I’ve seen models of protected bike lanes – this isn’t New York City, this is Philadelphia, depending on how they put it, my concern was, I don’t know if I’d support a protected bike lane unless we can protect senior citizens from being – how do you make senior citizens aware that there is a bike lane when many of them don’t see particularly well or hear particularly well, and they may see the white lines but they may not stop to look both ways, so they don’t walk across the path of the bike lane. If we could somehow assure – and frankly I don’t know what their position would be – if we said, guess what ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to turn Kennedy boulevard in part into a bike lane.  Let’s hear what they have to say. My guess is they’d be pretty worried about their own safety and security because, for example, they’re already prone to falling. I’m not against it as a concept, I support it but my question is, how are you going to put it in that neighborhood without older folks falling or getting hit or getting injured or killed?

PP: I think that’s a very legitimate concern. But from the proposals from the Center City District, through, they would paint the lane a different color, they’d put up signs at every pedestrian intersection, and actually bump out the curbs a bit more, and thus the seniors would have less time in the street, and more time on a pedestrian only sidewalk.

LA: And as I said, I’m not against the concept.

PP: As long as it –

LA: You’re gonna have to sell me, as the mayor, to make sure that those senior citizens don’t feel that their lives are endangered every time they step out on the street by these bicycle users who go very, very fast. And I don’t care what you do, when you’re living in a neighborhood that’s mostly seniors, and Kennedy Boulevard is mostly seniors, you have to be respectful of their age and their concerns, and I don’t know if the Center City District – and I don’t know, I know Paul Levy very, very well; he’s a good friend, and he’s very, very forward thinking, and I support him in many, many, many areas. I want to know what the people that live in those buildings, whether they were consulted about that and how do they feel. And if they say “oh yes, we know about this, and we’re fine with it! They’ll paint the lane pink, and I’ll see it and I won’t trip.” Fine. But my guess is that many will say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, it’s worth your life on Kennedy Boulevard now!” And you’re going to add a bicycle on top of it, besides speeding buses, speeding automobiles, speeding motorcyclists, and now you’re gonna have some guy on a bike come crashing down my street and I’m gonna fall and hurt myself? That’s all I care about. If seniors are taken into consideration, and if they feel safe and secure, there’s no problem. But nobody informed me, in any of things that I’ve read, that the members of those apartment buildings have been consulted and are that they go with it. If they are consulted and they go with it, God Bless.

I go to New York all the time. They have bike lanes in New York. They’re very effective. First off, New York is huge by comparison, and they’re on 3rd Avenue or places like that, where the lanes, the streets are generally wider. So anything in New York is generally wider than in Philadelphia.

PP: Yeah, like wallets…

LA: Well, yeah. But this is a city of tiny and small streets. One and two lanes. If you want to go any place, Market Street, Kennedy Boulevard. If you’re stuck on Spruce Street, Pine Street, on any of our numbered streets, you’re stuck there for a very long time.

PP: So, you and Jim Kenney have gotten into it a bit at some of the forums over your competing visions for what mayoral leadership should look like and what the balance of power between the mayor and the city council should be. I haven’t heard you, though, have the opportunity to fully articulate what the balance really should be.

LA: I’ve said – You haven’t been to as many forums as I’ve been to.

PP: Yeah, I admit, I’ve only been to like four.

LA: And just to correct your impression, we haven’t “gotten into it” at all. These forums are not debates, they’re forums. So, therefore, there’s not much give and take. And, frankly, I’m kind of grateful for that. The reason I’m grateful is that the people of Philadelphia who are going to vote, we hope on May 19th, get a chance to hear an individual’s point of view on a given issue. There’s not so much of that “Well, you’re mother wears army boots!” “No, she doesn’t, she wears tennis shows! It’s your mother that wears the army…” I mean, it’s so silly, and so boring, and so non-productive. It doesn’t give the voter a chance to understand what is that person thinking about my issue, or this issue?

So, I’ve said quite clearly that our charter is based on a strong mayor form of government. And that, for some, although it has been amended from time to time, the balance of power up until relatively recently, has been that the mayor is the mayor and that the legislative body is the council. So he’s the executive – soon to be she – and they are the legislative body. But somewhere along the way, the council president and some of the council people think that the best way to run the city is to usurp the mayor. You can’t say it any plainer than that. I speak really, really, really plain. If you look at every councilmanic suggestion about amending the charter, its always taking power away form the mayor. And/or giving more power to the council president. Like the council president suggesting what should be cabinet level position that it is not his prerogative to do that. That is something that the mayor should do.

Now, would you say to me, “Don’t you think that the relationship between council and mayor should be better?” Absolutely. If they’re working collaboratively, then that’s a good thing for everybody. Here’s the problem with not acting collaboratively.

Businesses, industries, either here or thinking about coming here, say “Philadelphia may not be the best place, I should bring my business technology center, or ideas, because these two bodies are fighting each other for power and authority and its dysfunctional. So, if it’s dysfunctional, I’ll go to Baltimore or New York state or Wilmington, or some place else. “

Pick your city. Des Moines, I dunno. I’m not wedded to any of the states around us. Anywhere. But they don’t want to come here. There is too many impediments to coming here to begin with. Look, the want the mayor and the legislature to work closely together for the benefit of whatever business is coming here.

PP: So that’s a perfect segue way to my next question-

LA: So, am I clear on that?

PP: Yes.

LA: And Mr. Kenney apparently has voted for powers that – look at it this way, just think about this for a minute. He’s a member of council who is agreeing to strip away his own powers if he should become mayor. And I think that nobody is thinking about that. And then they’re nibbling away at the charter by these ad hoc amendments, which are not good for governance, and they lard it up with resolutions and a sense of the council – that’s not the way you put something attached to a charter? The charter is the basic outline, like our Constitution, of how our government should work. And our Constitution has only been amended in all of those hundreds of years only a few times. But city council keeps changing and altering the charter. If you want to change the charter, here’s my suggestion, and I’ve said this publically, so I’ll say it to you: lets have a charter commission. We’ll have a charter commission because the charter was made several decades ago, 60 years ago, and we’ll say, OK, let’s have a charter commission. How do we want our government to work? I’ll tell you as a statement of fact that there is not one city that is run by less than a strong mayor, because you cannot govern a city with 10 boroughs and a council president and 7 council people at large, it just is unworkable.

PP: But you did mention that businesses are looking to come here – when they see infighting between the mayor, city council, it’s dysfunctional, they don’t want to come.

LA: Look at UIL. Perfect example.

PP: That is a perfect example. But you clearly disagree with the current council president on at least where the balance of power should lie. How are you going to work with council once you’re elected?

LA: Because one thing has nothing to do with the other. I’m running for mayor, I’m not running for anything other than mayor. Mayor is the chief executive of the city. It’s the CEO.

Jim Kenney said, “Well I think the mayor ought to be a point guard.” Is he joking or what? I’m not here to be a point guard. I’m here to be the CEO. If he wants to be the point guard let him do that if he beats me. But as a mayor, I’m the CEO of this city. And the legislative body is the legislative body. How the city council and the mayor work together is a whole different story. And I can tell you, if I’m elected mayor which I expect to be, Darrel Clark and I will get along quite well, once we get to know each other a little better. I know more about him than he knows about me. If you want to use this as an example, there wasn’t anymore different of a couple, if you will, than Ed Rendell and John Street. Those two people work together. Or any other mayor in the past like Richardson Dilworth or Paul D’Ortona, George Schwartz. There are bumps along the road, but this is a long-term relationship. Four years is a long time and we can’t lose sight of the fact that the mayor and the council are elected to serve the people’s interest and business.

PP: Because you mentioned Ed Rendell, from what I understand, Rendell spent a lot of time holding John Street’s hand and sort of doing whatever he needed to do – prostrating himself before council more than once to ensure his agenda was going to be accomplished.

LA: I think he didn’t quite put it that way.

PP: Yeah, I’m sure he would rephrase it, and I’m just getting it from A Prayer for the City and a few other accounts – I wasn’t there, obviously – but I’m wondering if that is something you think you’d have to do. How exactly will you interact with him?

LA: I think that the council president has an agenda and so does the mayor. My pole star is: How do we get the city not to fail? We’re already in deep economic difficulty. We need to bring more businesses, more taxes, more jobs, more opportunity here. We need to make sure that our net inward migration is constantly growing. And the only way it grows is with population who is attracted to come here because opportunities are here, jobs are here, inexpensive relative to the market place is here, great shopping and social venues, great restaurants, culture things, parks, recreation. And that we’re technologically advanced enough to supply significant job marketing. At the same time, bring our impoverishment level down as fast as we can, which is going to be another huge issue. So, if we keep in mind that’s our mandate, then it seems to me that if we’re going to achieve any of those goals, then we’re going to have to keep in mind that it’s not about me.

If you go to the Mayor’s press conference room – you’ve been there – look up on the wall, except for some of the people you know because you’ve been a contemporary of some of them, do you recognize any of those people on the wall?

PP: I think a handful of the historical figures, I’d be able to—

LA: Like who?

PP: I’ve been in the room three times, and I do not have a great photographic memory, so…

LA: Well, I can tell you, you can probably recognize Ed Rendell because he had a photo as opposed to a mural painting.

PP: Oh, those are all mayors [on the wall]?

LA: The answer is nobody.

PP: I’d recognize Richardson Dilworth, Fumo, Joe –

LA: Fumo?

PP: I’m sorry, I wanted to say Rizzo.

LA: Rizzo. Not Fumo. He’s never been the mayor.

PP: I know.

LA: You might have seen Rizzo, but –

PP: Joe Clark.

LA: Very few people can remember most of those people. You know why? Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what you accomplish. So I really don’t even want a mural of myself.

When I was a judge and I left the bench, they wanted to commission a mural of me. So, I said, I tell you what. Take the same amount of money you’d pay some painter, some artist, some… person and buy a piece of medical equipment or endow a scholarship or do something useful with it. I said, most of these paintings are of people no one knows about or cares about. We can do something better with that money.

So, my lodestar, polestar, absolute issue is how do we take care of the people’s business? And that is going to be at the uppermost of my mind and I will make accommodations to the council president and he will do the same to me, otherwise, I can tell you, the future of Philadelphia will not be good. And it’s my determination to make the future very good.

PP: Speaking of recommendations, at the BUILD Philly forum yesterday [April 8th] , you said that you’d work to overturn councilmanic prerogative. How would you go about doing that?

LA: It isn’t engraved in stone. And that’s going to be a hard lift. I can tell you, I’m not going to be spending a whole lot of time doing that, because my time is going to be better spent on job development, trying to get a great source of recurring and steady funding for our schools, improving our schools, making sure that we have the job force for today’s jobs and the future. Those things, the important things, how do we try to stave off pension disaster –

PP: You’re going to focus on the –

LA: On the major issues.  So, councilmanic prerogative is going to be one of those things that’ll probably be around, but, y’know, none of those council people are elected to be the head of a fiefdom. They’re not land lords. They’re there to represent all the people, but in particular, to represent their councilmanic district. But not to the exclusion of everybody else. So it is important that, if you can’t reform the notion of councilmanic privilege, that you try to limit it, A. And also you dis-incentivize people from feeling as though they might have to do something that they prefer not to do by saying, OK, change the ethical rules, you can’t make a political contribution to a council person, for example.

I put up this ethics paper yesterday, it’s online.

You cannot make a political contribution to a councilperson in order to potentially influence the outcome of a decision of something that is going on in a council person’s district. The notion to me that council remains silent, event when something is really, really terrific because the local or district councilperson doesn’t want it is very distressing.

Is it the end of the world? No. But is it distressing? Yes.

And also, if overused, and that’s qualifier, if overused it really has s tendency to hurt rather than help development and other things.

PP: So, would it be fair to say that your strategy would be more of limiting it rather than get rid of it?

LA: Well, first of all, you can’t get – it’s a councilmanic – the mayor doesn’t have the prerogative to go into city council. But the mayor can use her influence to tell the public and inform the public what’s happening. And to try to limit the extent of councilmanic privilege. Is it going to disappear? Not likely. And I don’t intend to spend my major energies on it. My major energies are on education, job creation, tax reform, building our population base, making sure we’re taking in sufficient money, doing right by the public and making sure that everybody feels that he or she has a seat at the table.

PP: Let’s turn to transportation. The mayor doesn’t actually have a lot of power over city transportation issues, as I think you’re keenly aware.

LA: Yup, just has a seat on the SEPTA board, essentially.

PP: Yeah, seats on the SEPTA Board, PennDOT owns a lot of the roads, et cetera. You can’t even build a bike lane without city council now. So, how does a mayor ensure that the major, even transformative, infrastructure projects that are in the potential pipeline, like capping part of I-95, or extending the Broad Street Line or bringing rail or rapid transit of some sort to Roosevelt Boulevard? How do you advance these?

LA: Well, first of all, a lot of those things are aspirational. Well, ok, I talked about Roosevelt Boulevard. Somebody said “Well, we’re gonna build a subway up Roosevelt Boulevard.” I don’t think so. Now, maybe, something to think about, and I’d have to study this a lot deeper than I have so far, but I said to the people up in the Northeast when they broached the subject, I said, in Portland Oregon, they have a rapid transit surface line, it’s dandy, its terrific. Assuming you could even do this, because Roosevelt Boulevard, remember, goes forever. It is long. It is bisected by many, many large streets. Many! So the thought of how you event put a rapid transit system up Roosevelt Boulevard for all of its length is really daunting.

Are we really going to be able to accomplish it? Not probably anytime soon. Is it something we might want to think about for the future and plan for 10 or 20 or 30 or so years out? Listen, everything today started 30 or 40 years ago. Even when they built the courthouse, the new criminal justice system, they were talking about that 35 years ago. Maybe 40 years ago, “we need a new court house, we need a new court house.” The juvenile justice courthouse was talked about 40 years ago. So you do have to plan for later. However, it’s better to me to think about how we can –

[STAFFER KNOCKS ON DOOR]

LA: Hello?

Staffer: Just wanted to remind you that your next appointment is coming up.

LA: Ok. How we can turn, how we can leverage monies out of Harrisburg and the federal government? Now yesterday there was a news conference where there was an announcement – and I wasn’t there because I was doing my own news conference, but apparently we’ve gotten some major funding to do some infrastructure. Our transportation system by SEPTA is really trying to transform itself by getting cleaner buses, small buses, more energy and more fuel efficiency buses and so forth

PP: That rally was actually encouraging the federal government to improve funding.

LA: Well, that was why all those congressmen were there.

PP: If Congress doesn’t do anything to replenish the national Highway Trust Fund, we’re in trouble, because about half of all our capital money comes from the federal government.

LA: Right. Absolutely right. And I think that’s something that will come about, but those huge grants from UMTA, the big Urban Mass Transit Authority grants, those days are over. [Ed. Note: UMTA was renamed the Federal Transit Administration in 1991.] At least I think so, with the government in very deep deficit. So I think we have to plan realistically, but be imaginative about how we can improve our infrastructure.

It’s hard for me to believe that the city of Philadelphia – I mean our bridges are in trouble, our highways are in trouble, and our mass transit systems are in trouble – so if we don’t’ have mass transit to take people from here to there, that is a big negative for potential [for] making Philadelphia the next great city.

Give me one more question.

PP: I’m reasonably sure that, in my lifetime, there hasn’t been a good story about L&I –

LA: I can’t think of one right now.

PP: Yeah – last 30 years? The problems seem intractable…

LA: They are difficult but they’re not –

PP: …the consequences are devastating –

LA: Well, there are lots of departments that have issues. I’ll give you an example. Department of Human Services was a basket case. I investigated, as district attorney, many cases of child abuse and neglect, contractors who were ripping off the city for millions and millions of dollars, families that left in horrible condition, children being starved, beaten, abused, sexually molested and DHS was dreadful, dreadful. Largely as a result, unfortunately, those children suffering and those families suffering, DHS finally got some good people in tit to try and start to change it. It has started to change. It is better. Ok.

L&I is, if anything, worse than the Department of Human Services. And I’d love to be able to say “but human lives haven’t been lost,” but human lives have been lost, because of their negligence, incompetence. So, I believe that the permitting function and the inspection function can be made better. The permitting function can certainly be more streamlined. You don’t have to feel like you’re like Sisyphus in the basement of the Municipal Services Building. And the inspections department should be under an engineer – a licensed, certified engineer who will know exactly what to do. And the people who are going to work for L&I are properly trained, that they’re held accountable, that they are required to be on site, that they are required to be there after business hours. At 5 o’clock, when there are no more inspectors, there are hundreds of jobs, probably, going on in Philadelphia with no inspector there to see because they’re bring in contract labor that are not doing the right thing. Instead of using this kind of board, they’re using the thinner kind. Instead of using this kind of wire, they’re using the more dangerous wire.

So we need to make sure that everything is there, and if we have to, do everything we can to just tear the department down and just build it back up again. Look, there are people who want to work. There are people who want to work. A lot of L&I people went to work at Lowes and Home Depot, interestingly enough, because they know electrical and plumbing and all this other business We want to make sure they have pride in place – guys love to be able to fix things. If you’re the kind of man that I admire in a worker, they see a problem and go, “Oh, I can fix that!”

I mean it has to be fixed in accordance to code and so forth, but you can make sure that codes are not burdensome and confusing, that they’re clear, that the requirements are clear, that inspectors are not expected to take a bribe, or offer to take a bribe or to quote “fix something” if you pay them off or they’ll turn a blind eye. The L&I department has been serially investigated for years, and decades even. And I can’t say what’s the problem but I know this is something that will be a huge, huge priority for me.

PP: Well, I see we’re out of time

LA: We are, I’m sorry. It’s been a busy day.

PP: Well, thank you for taking the time to meet with me.


About the author

Jim Saksa, Reporter

Jim Saksa is PlanPhilly's multi-modal transportation reporter. That means he's focused on how Philly gets around as cyclists, pedestrians, trail users, commuters and drivers. 

Jim lives in Point Breeze and has also written for Slate.com, Philadelphia City Paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Technical.ly Philly. He tweets @Saksappeal and you can reach him at jsaksa@whyy.org.



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