On Monday morning, Mayor Jim Kenney stopped by WHYY for a wide-ranging conversation with RadioTimes host Marty Moss-Coane.
The two discussed a series of policy questions -- many of them literally life or death -- confronting the city. One of the only moments of levity came during their discussion of the cult like adulation for the Philadelphia Flyers much-memed new mascot, Gritty.The mayor admitted that he just doesn’t get it.
“I think part of the fun was booing him, it was attractive to folks to boo him because he looks so crazy,” Kenney ruminated. “I wonder what the Phanatic feels like. He must feel so unloved.”
In non-mascot-related commentary, Kenney’s frustration with areas of policy beyond his control was palpable. He denounced pre-emption from Harrisburg that prevents the city from raising the minimum wage or regulating guns, while lamenting the federal government’s lack of attention to drug treatment and education funding.
But when it came to issues largely in the city’s control, he pivoted to discuss more concrete policy items (most of the time). Here are five big takeaways from his RadioTimes interview.
“We are looking at reinstituting some form of street cleaning,” said Kenney. But he explained that city politicians are apprehensive about the idea because of former Councilman Frank DiCicco’s brush with electoral death over asking people to move their cars to make room for the sweepers. DiCicco represented much of South Philly east of Broad Street between 1996 and 2012.
“He put all the signs up, move your car one day a week,” recalled Kenney. “But he was concerned with his re-election because people were so angry about having to move their cars when the streets were being swept … Think about how insane that was. So everyone was gun-shy after that.”
Kenney mentioned that Manhattan residents have to move their cars twice a week for street cleaning, and they don’t seem bothered by it.
“We are trying to figure out how to do it on a regular basis without having a revolt of people who don’t want to move their cars,” said Kenney. “I don’t want to just do it in neighborhoods that want to accept it. I would like to have a comprehensive program of doing it. I’m sorry we haven’t done it yet. But we are working on it.”
The mayor went on to say that too many Philadelphia residents have an unwholesome habit of throwing their trash at their feet. (No mention was made of the shortage of trash cans in the neighborhoods.) Kenney said that he wasn’t trying to dodge responsibility, but it’s a difficult for the local government to keep up with the city’s bad habits.
As car-sharing and on-demand delivery have become more popular, the streets and bike lanes of Center City have become increasingly congested with idling drivers.
Kenney framed the issue as another where common decency loses out to expediency. He called out Uber drivers who block bike lanes and make it difficult for buses to navigate, and he promised enforcement action.
“We are working on a comprehensive plan with the Police Department and the Parking Authority,” said Kenney. “I know everyone hates the Parking Authority, but unless there is enforcement, you won’t have a capable system.”
He lamented that Philadelphians simply don’t follow the rules of the road, comparing the City of Brotherly Love unfavorably with London, which he recently visited. And he said Police Commissioner Richard Ross is already stepping up enforcement action.
“The police commissioner is putting more people graduating from classes into the traffic division,” said Kenney. “We have more officers in intersections in Center City during rush hour … We are enforcing more the double-parking and Uber stuff.”
Kenney used the RadioTimes interview to bash the “greedy pharmaceutical industry” that he sees at the root of the opioid crisis, the topic that took up more airtime than any other single issue.
The mayor claimed his administration's attempts to clear encampments of heroin users from Kensington have been broadly successful and that 160 people are “in some kind of bed or treatment.” The Emerald Street encampment will be cleared in January, he promised.
“We can't just move people without some kind of bed for them to go,” said Kenney. “We have to set up a system where we have enough beds for the folks before we move them. But we moved three out of four encampments, and none have repopulated.”
The mayor praised the Justice Department and the FBI for their work against drug traffickers and dealers. But when asked about the possibility of a supervised injection site, he lamented the Justice Department’s hard line against the policy -- and asked why the federal government couldn’t help the city with more support for shelter beds and rehabilitation services instead of just issuing threats.
“We want to eliminate death by overdose,” said Kenney. “They [safe injection sites] apparently work very well in Europe and in Canada ...The ability of someone to inject under supervision, so if you do fall out or overdose, they are there to save you. If that’s my relative, I want someone there to bring them back.”
Kenney said that innovative strategies for approaching the opioid crisis are desperately needed. Addiction is a disease, he said,and it needs to be treated as such. Law enforcement alone cannot solve it.
A scathing listener question about mass transit and SEPTA’s falling ridership provoked the mayor to effusively praise mass transit, although few clear policies were discussed.
“The issue is there hasn't been as long-term investment anywhere in the country,” said Kenney. “It's always on highways, not mass transit. I agree that mass transit is the answer.”
The mayor said public officials are trying to make do with the resources SEPTA has and that fare increases cannot be part of the solution, because that would only further depress ridership. The possibility of greater local government contributions to SEPTA was not discussed, although Philadelphia has one of the lowest contributions to its mass transit agency of any public transportation-dependent metropolis in the nation.
Kenney also noted that SEPTA’s board is not necessarily arranged in a fashion that would put Philadelphia’s interests first. The great majority of the board is stocked with representatives from suburban jurisdictions, which has long been seen as a way to politically safeguard SEPTA’s standing in Harrisburg, where Philadelphia is not looked upon favorably by the Republican-dominated legislature.
“We do not have the majority of people on the SEPTA board, and a lot of this is driven by the regional folks,” Kenney said.
Moss-Coane asked Kenney about a recent Philadelphia Inquirer investigation into a Point Breeze developer, Felton Hayman, who seems to have bent the city’s land disposition policies to his own ends through his ties to Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. Hayman flipped two properties he’d just purchased from the city at unusually low prices, making a hefty profit without adding any further value to the parcels.
Moss-Coane asked if that deal was wrong. The mayor answered with one word: “Yes.”
Kenney seemed to admit that the Philadelphia Land Bank, one of the institutions implicated in the Inquirer story, is not functioning well because of City Council interference in land disposition policy.
“We are trying to work with our land bank to make it a real land bank,” said Kenney. “Councilmanic prerogative will only be ended by Council. What you have is a political dynamic where the 10 district Council people will not vote against what another district Council person says in terms of a development or property or land distribution.”
The mayor said he didn’t know the details of the deals discussed in the Inquirer story, but that the city’s property distribution and development policies need to be more effective and transparent.
Kenney went on to discuss the $53 million the administration committed to affordable housing under pressure from City Council and highlighted the city’s many policies to help low-income homeowners remain in houses that are rapidly appreciating in some neighborhoods.
In response to Moss-Coane’s question about a recent PlanPhilly story on the right to counsel in eviction court, Kenney said discussions are ongoing about a recent Philadelphia Bar Association study that showed $3.5 million would cover the costs of ensuring legal representation for everyone in housing court.
“We are having this discussion with Council in the pre-budgetary process,” said Kenney. “We are talking to Council members about what they want, and there are a number of Council members who do support that program. We will have that negotiation, and hopefully, we can come up with that [$3.5 million] or something close to it.”