Since January, David Oh has been a hard man to get in touch with.
That’s when he was sworn in as a new Councilman-At-Large along with 5 other new members of Philadelphia City Council, an elected rookie class that meant the departure of six veteran members of the Council’s seventeen seats.
Oh says that life as an attorney at Zarwin Baum DeVito Kaplan Schaer Toddy, P.C. — where he has worked since 2008 when he merged his private practice with the firm — has changed. Though he says he’s been waking at 4:30 in the morning and working as late as 11:00 p.m., he hasn’t been able to practice much law in the courtroom since the election.
Instead, he’s been focused on transitioning to his new role as Councilman.
Oh grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, where he still lives today with his wife and three young children. He says his political aspirations were driven in part from watching his father Reverend Ki Hang Oh found the city’s first Korean-American church in 1953.
“Growing up and living in a poor section of Philadelphia, I was exposed to the problems and issues that people face and ultimately saw many occasions where people who didn’t have much opportunity became successful,” he says. “There was always the question: ‘couldn’t we do something a little better’?
Shortly after starting his new post, Oh helped found and now chairs the new Committee on Global Opportunities and the Creative/Innovative Economy, dedicated to exploring ways to improve Philadelphia’s economy through the those sectors. He also sits on the Committee of Technology and Information Services.
After the jump, Oh talks business taxes, global economy and growth and honest government.
From the start it’s been very demanding. I’m a Councilperson-at-Large, so I cover the whole city. The transition took a little longer this year because we had six new councilpeople coming in, as opposed to the usual two or three. We come in at a difficult time: With Catholic schools in the region looking at being closed, the announcement of closings of other public schools, and much more, it’s pretty challenging.
You were a member of Rendell’s mayoral transition team in 1991. What was that Philadelphia like compared to today? What stands out to you as changed?
The thing that stands out to me that’s positive is that there has been a homegrown change. In some cases, it is brought by people who are very interested in innovation, creativity, technology, who are very interested in transforming Philadelphia into a better city. On the negative side, the job situation is worse for many of the average people living in neighborhoods. The educational system is very strained. While there’s an ongoing effort to make corrections, it has been very challenging. There is a greater divide between those who have opportunities and those who don’t.
How did you become interested in politics?
My father was a pastor who came from a very difficult place: occupied Korea. He came to Philadelphia in 1952 and started his church in 1953. He ended up in Southwest Philadelphia when there was a lot of issues, including racial strife. He dealt with immigrants and all the problems of people who don’t speak the language or understand the culture in a time when society was more discriminatory.
Growing up and living in a poor section of Philadelphia, I was exposed to the problems and issues that people face and ultimately saw many occasions where people who didn’t have much opportunity became successful. Eventually as I was able to get an education and become a professional and serve on different boards, there was always the question: ‘couldn’t we do something a little better’?
You helped create and now chair the Council’s Committee on Global Opportunities and the Creative/Innovative Economy. What are the priorities?
We have to of course be aware of the fact that the city needs revenues. In our current situation, we have to talk about growing the pie more than regulating or doing other things with it. Looking at Philadelphia’s history and where we’ve ended up, we have to look at where our growth is in our region and the world to find out what we could do. What is unique about Philadelphia, and to whom is Philadelphia attractive?
I’m very much focused on making Philadelphia a more global city with a section of the city physically that is accommodating for the type of people that we want: a 24-hour section of our city. We can look at other cities that have turned the entire city into a 24-hour ecosystem and why that was successful. Creative is a wonderful thing: it has self-esteem and self-worth attached to it, which are extremely important especially in declining neighborhoods where people have lost a sense of self-worth. In the case of innovation, the city’s challenge is to really attract and retain all of these innovative people.
We have to translate that vision not so much to your readers but to people who don’t have access to it in neighborhoods. We need these people, and this is an energy that will benefit these people and ultimately the jobs.
We’ve seen a noticeable increase in and action around Open Data in Philadelphia. What is your commitment to open government? What needs to get done?
Greater participation means greater opportunity for success. If we have a more accessible government, you can do all the things you need to do, at any time. It makes government more convenient. But beyond that, if it’s more transparent, then people are more aware and are able to add their opinions, experience and other things.
What will you do tomorrow to improve Open Data initiatives?
There was a bill introduced yesterday [Ed. note: by Councilman Bill Green] that ultimately will have to do with time table and processes of the city’s IT, so that it can make the information within City Hall available for scrutiny.
In addition to that, we can also legislate that data that is user friendly in the sense that people don’t necessarily want to look at a one-inch thick report from a certain department of government. They still want to know how many kids are in school, what’s the budget, how much money goes to classroom education. We need to allow people to participate and understand what government is or is not doing.
Part of your Honest Government platform is to modernize the tools used by civil servants. What are you hoping to achieve there?
I think we have to improve the quality of human interaction in the city, and that’s something that people want to see done. When we talk about honest and transparent government, that means someone who opens a drawer, pulls out a manilla file folder, and says ‘I’m happy to provide that for you’. Access to information and opportunities comes not on the computer right now. We’re dealing with the bureaucratic issues of internal policies, how things are recorded, what’s available.
How do you hope to make Philadelphia more business-friendly?
We probably need to at least take a look at our overall tax strategy. Some taxes are too low, others are too high, some are counter-productive. In this shrinking world, we need to hear form people who we want to be here. We want to make the city business-friendly. If you are a business person, in terms of your desire to take a risk in the city, employ people in the city, pay rent, expand, increase holdings, we want to make sure that this is a city you want to be in.
How would you like to see Philadelphia’s technology get involved with politics and policy?
Communicate. I will say that you’re doing exactly what is the answer to this question. Someone has to communicate that government is important. Part of that depends on people involved in this sector. Understanding what we’re trying to do and finding ways to add opinion or be helpful or critical. I am trying to get a sense of what’s going on, meet with lots of entrepreneurial groups, businesses, developers and investors. We need to have the input and buy-in of the people.-30-
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