Ethics will be Nutter's mayoral legacy. Will open data gains survive? - Philly


Nov. 25, 2014 11:30 am

Ethics will be Nutter’s mayoral legacy. Will open data gains survive?

With a year left in his administration, the Nutter legacy is currently being written. At a recent event, some wondered whether his work on open data will survive after he's gone.

Mayor Michael Nutter delivers his March 2013 Budget Address in the Mayor's Reception Room in City Hall.

(Photo by Kait Privitera)

Updated: Find our 2015 mayoral campaign coverage here.
Michael Nutter’s 2007 mayoral campaign was successful in part because of his work in City Council on ethics reform and his strong rhetoric on transparency.

With a final year left on his two-term limit, the Nutter administration has been called one of the most honest and incorruptible mayors in Philadelphia history. The open data movement was revived here at a good time, as a natural partner to Nutter’s campaign package.

But will it last?

The progress in City Hall transparency, from the infamous 2003 federal probe until today, is commendable, Committee of Seventy interim director Ellen Kaplan said at a roundtable discussion last week. The panel, part of the city’s inaugural, internal-facing Integrity Week, also featured recently-retired Inquirer City Hall reporter Bob Warner, attorney Stella Tsai and, full disclosure, this reporter. Watch video of the roundtable below.


The roundtable, much of which Nutter watched from the audience, was moderated by the city’s new chief integrity officer, Hope Caldwell, whose office organized the week of events aiming to celebrate and educate city employees about transparency efforts.

“There’s no expectation that any mayor won’t pick up the trash,” Nutter said at the event. “We need the same [expectation] for ethics in government.”

Nutter, of course, was bound to take on ethics as an administration staple, considering how he got to City Hall in the first place.

That 2007 cycle was the first test of the city’s campaign finance limits, which Nutter helped write, Kaplan said, and, following one of his campaign promises, Mayor Nutter continued the Board of Ethics he helped launch.

The board was “extraordinary” in its initial incarnation, said Bob Warner. (Warner is more muted on recent developments, criticizing the Nutter administration for sending too many right-to-know requests to their now over-burdened legal department).

The ban on gifts to city employees is seen as a lasting triumph, but policy wonks like he, Kaplan and Tsai (an original member of the Board of Ethics) all wonder if the momentum of this administration could fade under different leadership. (There’s a similar concern in Washington, D.C.)

For example, Kaplan still wants to see more of the recommendations from the ethics task force be implemented. For example, there is no comprehensive whistleblower law for the city, she said, and there are at least three disclosure forms for city employees to report second jobs that may be a conflict.

Nutter’s polling numbers have sagged, in part because of general public frustration around the School District, but he at least anecdotally remains popular in tech and startup circles — he’s still a hot ticket to help open a new Center City office, for example.

Open gov is a part of that, and there are many groups getting excited about more. What remains to be done is not for lack of people whose job it is to oversee such changes.

Between Caldwell’s Integrity Office, the city Inspector General, the City Controller, the Board of Ethics, various task forces and myriad independent nonprofits like Seventy and Common Cause, there’s a patchwork of good government watchdogs that may have defined roles to insiders but likely remain confusing to those less well versed.


If the rules and oversight groups that govern good behavior of city employees are the traditional mechanisms of enforcing efficient government, the digital toolkit of the open data movement represents the next wave.

There, too, are successes to laud the Nutter administration for — but there also remains a need over the next year to institutionalize open data efforts.

It’s striking how much of a Gov 2.0 community has blossomed under Nutter’s watch; it’s also worrying how easily a successor might let it fade.

Note the rapid timeline since the end of Nutter’s first term:

Headd brought widespread attention to his position and aggressively pursued workflow adaptations and regular data releases. In time, he grew tired of the slow pace of City Hall, a familiar trope among reformers, and announced his resignation. (For what it’s worth, some in city government who cheered his mission have said his methodology wasn’t always productive, pushing too hard too soon.)

But rather than backsliding, an interesting opportunity is emerging.

Headd’s enthusiasm is now in the hands of Tim Wisniewski, a self-taught civic hacker who knows neighborhood politics. The city’s new chief data officer is well liked both by the local tech circles that Headd helped build and the civil servants who are more comfortable with his methodical approach. Headd himself has said his departure might help push things forward in a more sustainable way.

City data keeps being released and workflows are being reconfigured. Wisniewski has a three-pronged attack to make his work last, and still-independent OpenDataPhilly is getting a reboot.

Wisniewski added former Code for America fellow Aaron Ogle as his Director of Civic Technology and is joined at city IT with a cadre of other mostly young staffers, who are well-versed in national open gov trends.

For the open data side of Nutter’s transparency legacy, those staffers may represent the real test case: the processes and ideals started anew in the last half-decade will either have lasting impact into the next administration or they will stall; leaving only a talented young squad unable to maintain its clout without mayoral leadership.

“Work like this is never done. There’s always another goal,” said Caldwell, the city’s chief integrity officer. “This is all a process, one we have to all work on continuing.”

  • Fred Phien

    Ha yeah sure ethics will be Nutter’s legacy – along with spot zoning and free public property for his cronies in pay-to-play schemes just like all the other crooks before him.

    The guy raises my property taxes 3 times in 3 years, also raise the sales tax, then turns around and gives a whole block away to Dranoff for free. Is that why my taxes keep going up?

    • By just about any account I’ve heard, the level of these kinds of deals happen less than ever. Plus, the tax logic here is just screwy — property taxes in Philadelphia are universally deemed too low, sales tax was an unpopular but complicated move and tax packages for large-scale, city-influenced property developments aren’t necessarily unethical.

      The Nutter administration deserves criticism because all public officials in places we care about should be criticized but words lose meaning if they’re overused. Calling the Nutter administration unethical takes power away from that word, which needs to be used when it’s important.

    • Joel Ruffini

      The City Council members are the ones who benefit from spot zoning and land bank/PRA land program, not Nutter. Love him or hate him, Ori Feibush discusses how the spot zoning leads to corruption quite well in a recent interview:

      Also, you are missing the net taxation impact. For every dollar Dranoff pays to a worker to build his properties, he is paying city wage tax, those workers consume goods and pay sales tax etc. Then of course you have the fact that there is a nice new building and not an abandoned dump of a lot.

  • Fred Phien
    • I honestly couldn’t tell you.

    • Jake

      Sure does, it’s striking streets from the record for SLS. Furthermore, the links you posted are of City Council’s vote on it, which, IIRC, passed with a super-majority vote. Even if the mayor didn’t want the streets to be removed, it’d just bounce back to City Council and they would have ratified it without his approval.

      There are plenty bigger beefs to go against City Council and the Mayor for, why this?

  • AlgernonMoncrief


    “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” Bacon.

    For decades I refused to believe it, but it is now incontrovertibly established. The Colorado Supreme Court is indisputably a political actor. Our Colorado Supreme Court exists to serve Colorado political parties. At present, the Colorado Supreme Court is more rightly considered an adjunct of the Colorado Legislative Branch, than a check on the Colorado Legislative Branch. Rather than “truth-seeking,” the Colorado Supreme Court now sees its role as “political-outcome seeking.” Litigants successfully use the Colorado Supreme Court to achieve political purposes. In the Ralph Carr Justice Center, rather than meeting impartial guardians of the law, litigants meet their political allies on the bench.

    “I think there are many who think of judges as politicians in robes. In many states, that’s what they are.” “They seem to think judges should be a reflex of the popular will.”

    Sandra Day O’Connor

    The Colorado Supreme Court has accepted its role as a political tool, and recognizes no constitutional limits on the authority of the Colorado Legislative and Executive branches.

    In this article, I provide an example of the political and partisan role of the Colorado Supreme Court. I describe a case in which the Colorado Supreme Court summarily erases billions of dollars of debt owed by Colorado state and local governments. That is, one branch of Colorado state government relieves another branch of Colorado government of its legal debts.

    The case involves Colorado statutory contracts that create financial obligations on the part of Colorado governments. Over decades, political considerations induced the Colorado Legislature to mismanage the financial obligations. In recent years, the terms of these statutory contracts were deemed politically inconvenient and politically unpopular. The Legislative Branch asked the Colorado Supreme Court to discard the contracts.

    In 2010, the Colorado Legislative Branch requested that the Colorado Supreme Court grant this political favor by ignoring the Contract Clause of the US Constitution, ignoring the history of legislative mismanagement of these state financial obligations, and relieving Colorado governments of their accrued legal debts. No trial, no discovery, billions of dollars seized by the state.
    In granting this political favor, sanctioning the breach of Colorado PERA pension contracts, the Colorado Supreme Court was forced to ignore its own long-standing case law precedent, the court failed to conduct a “contract analysis,” the court ignored evidence of Colorado PERA’s attorneys stating that the pension benefit was indeed a Colorado PERA contractual obligation, the court ignored the bill (SB10-001) sponsor’s testimony that the pension benefit was in fact a Colorado PERA contractual obligation, the court ignored recorded legislative history of the contractual nature of the public pension benefit, the court failed to engage in the “heightened scrutiny” of the abandonment of state financial obligations required under federal case law (US Trust) and finally, the court embraced a discredited Denver District Court decision that did not bother to mention Colorado’s on-point public pension case law. In the United States, political connections can be used to quash legal investigations of banking fraud, and political connections can be used to summarily erase billions of dollars of government debt.

    In this article, I address the Colorado Supreme Court’s lack of independence, integrity, and impartiality. I provide a brief history of the efforts of the Colorado Legislature and the Colorado Supreme Court to escape Colorado governmental financial obligations. I comment on the recent (October, 2014) Colorado Supreme Court Decision itself, which summarily erased these billions of dollars of Colorado public sector debt. I highlight some of the numerous factual and logical errors that exist in the Colorado Supreme Court’s Decision in the case. I express incredulity at the Colorado Supreme Court’s willful ignorance of public pension administration, knowledge that was necessary to any court claiming to “seek truth” in the case.

    Does it surprise you that we do not have the “rule of law” in Colorado? I was very surprised to learn this. I believed that the Colorado Supreme Court judges were beyond political influence. I believed that they would examine all evidence and give weight to legal precedents set by former judges on the Colorado Supreme Court. I was wrong. It turns out that “corruption” exists in government to the same extent it exists in the private sector. No trial, no discovery, government forgives its own debts, billions of dollars seized.

    The Colorado Judiciary had an obligation to ensure that all evidence in the case was examined prior to breaking Colorado PERA pension contracts. They ruled in ignorance. This ignorance may have been willful. Rather than honoring their debts, Colorado PERA-affiliated governments will now inflate away that debt courtesy Colorado Supreme Court.

    My intent in writing this article is to enhance the public record of, and further document, what I consider to be one of the greatest “crimes” in Colorado history.

    Scripta manent, verba volant.

    On October 20, 2014, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Colorado PERA pensioners have no contractual right to their public pension COLA benefits. Yet, here we have documentation of Colorado PERA’s own lawyers acknowledging Colorado PERA’s contractual obligation to pay the PERA COLA as recently as 2009.

    December 16, 2009

    Colorado PERA officials in written testimony to the Joint Budget Committee: “The General Assembly cannot decrease the COLA (absent actuarial necessity) because it is part of the contractual obligations that accrue under a pension plan protected under the Colorado Constitution Article II, Section 11 and the United States Constitution Article 1, Section 10 for vested contractual rights.”

    Discover the true nature of Colorado state government at

    Read the complete article at


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