Northeast Times

'Battle for City Hall' awfully quiet

With Philly seem­ingly headed to­ward an­oth­er apathet­ic gen­er­al elec­tion, there were some big names miss­ing from last week's de­bate on Clear­field Street.

Billed as the “Battle for City Hall,” last Wed­nes­day’s polit­ic­al de­bate at Port Rich­mond’s Vet­er­an Box­ers As­so­ci­ation wasn’t very heated.

But, as the one of the last of­fi­cial de­bates be­fore the Nov. 8 elec­tion, it provided the can­did­ates who showed up with a chance to present their plat­forms to an audi­ence.

That only nine can­did­ates — for sher­iff, coun­cil and city com­mis­sion­er — at­ten­ded the event was a fact that, A. Ben Mannes, de­bate mod­er­at­or and or­gan­izer of Phil­adelphi­ans For Eth­ic­al Lead­er­ship, com­plained about throughout the night.

“We have a ser­i­ous prob­lem with ma­chine polit­ics in the City of Phil­adelphia,” he said, not­ing that most can­did­ates favored by their polit­ic­al parties didn’t at­tend the de­bate.

But, not many can­did­ates were ex­pec­ted to at­tend.

Coun­cil can­did­ates for dis­tricts that don’t rep­res­ent Port Rich­mond and Mark Squilla, the sole can­did­ate seek­ing the First Dis­trict seat — the dis­trict where the box­ing hall is loc­ated — were nev­er ex­pec­ted to show.

But, with 11 can­did­ates fight­ing for at-large seats on City Coun­cil, four vy­ing for city com­mis­sion­er and three for sher­iff, only half of the ex­pec­ted can­did­ates ar­rived to de­bate.

••

Once sher­iff can­did­ates Re­pub­lic­an Josh West and the Green Party’s Cheri Honkala were seated, Mannes poin­ted out that a seat had been saved for Demo­crat Jew­ell Wil­li­ams, that race’s fa­vor­ite.

“As you can see by the empty seat, Jew­ell Wil­li­ams has chosen not to be here, even though he was in­vited,” com­plained Mannes.

West star­ted off the de­bate by say­ing many banks and in­vestors look at Phil­adelphia as “a bad in­vest­ment.” To fix this, he’d look at re­pair­ing the city’s bail sys­tem to re­coup money the city is owed, and he’d re­vamp how the of­fice handles sher­iff’s sales of prop­erty.

Honkala said she’d re­form the sys­tem not by ex­ped­it­ing sher­iff’s sales, but by halt­ing them.

When pressed to ex­plain how she might halt the sale of tax de­lin­quent prop­er­ties and still up­hold the law, Honkala ex­plained she would “up­hold a high­er law.”

“Every sev­en seconds in this coun­try, a fam­ily goes in­to fore­clos­ure,” she said. “I will hold to a high­er law to keep fam­il­ies in homes … one that doesn’t just be­ne­fit banks, prop­erty own­ers and spec­u­lat­ors … I will not put writs on fam­ily doors.”

Mannes ques­tioned Honkala about her ar­rest re­cord, since a felony con­vic­tion would make any can­did­ate un­able to serve in elec­ted of­fice in Phil­adelphia. Honkala said she had been ar­res­ted more than 200 times, though al­ways for in­volve­ment in civil rights protests and non-vi­ol­ent civil dis­turb­ances.

She said she had no felony ar­rests.

A more press­ing con­cern, Mannes said, was the dis­cov­ery of $56 mil­lion that had been un­ac­coun­ted for after be­ing placed in 13 dif­fer­ent ac­counts con­trolled by the sher­iff’s of­fice. An Oct. 14 Daily News art­icle, “Sher­iff’s Bur­ied Bounty,” said at least half of that money is owed to former prop­erty own­ers.

The sher­iff’s of­fice is cur­rently work­ing on what to do with the money, but the can­did­ates both said they would re­turn the funds.

“Twenty-five years of money-walk­ing and mis­man­age­ment has af­fected pub­lic trust of that de­part­ment,” West said of the sher­iff’s of­fice. “I’m go­ing to stand in the courtroom and see what they are do­ing. I’m go­ing to lead by ex­ample.”

Honkala said she’d go one step fur­ther, say­ing people haven’t ral­lied against the banks and lend­ing in­sti­tu­tions for years of money mis­man­age­ment and fore­clos­ures.

Bey­ond re­mov­ing fam­il­ies from com­munit­ies, fore­clos­ures hurt neigh­bor­hoods by cre­at­ing blight, Honkala said. 

She sug­ges­ted start­ing a class-ac­tion suit on be­half of neigh­bor­hoods im­pacted by blight re­lated to bank-seized prop­er­ties.

“There hasn’t been enough of an out­cry,” she said. “I’d start a class-ac­tion suit against these banks that caused blight in our neigh­bor­hoods, start­ing with Port Rich­mond.”

“We have to stop. We have to stop adding to the 40,000 va­cant prop­er­ties [in Phil­adelphia],” she con­tin­ued.

West’s plan to deal with blighted prop­er­ties would be to step up sher­iff’s sales of aban­doned homes by put­ting everything on the In­ter­net — he even sug­ges­ted us­ing eBay — to bring a wider audi­ence to prop­erty auc­tions.

“You’re go­ing to have a na­tion­al audi­ence,” he said about host­ing sher­iff’s sales on the In­ter­net. “It will push the price up. It will get these prop­er­ties sold.”

••

The can­did­ates for City Com­mis­sion­ers of­fice in at­tend­ance, Re­pub­lic­an Al Schmidt and Demo­crat Stephanie Sing­er, dis­cussed their hopes if elec­ted. 

Cur­rent com­mis­sion­ers Demo­crat An­thony Clark and Re­pub­lic­an Joe Duda, were no-shows.

Sing­er com­plained that much of the pub­lic’s con­fu­sion over the com­mis­sion­ers’ du­ties could be traced to the lack of a re­la­tion­ship with the pub­lic.

She poin­ted the fin­ger at cur­rent City Com­mis­sion­er Mar­garet Tartagli­one spe­cific­ally. 

“The of­fice is so shad­owy, there isn’t much in­form­a­tion avail­able about what they do,” she com­plained.

The of­fice serves the Board of Elec­tions and has a mul­ti­tude of du­ties re­lat­ing to elec­tions in Phil­adelphia.

Schmidt agreed, say­ing he’d spe­cific­ally like to know more about em­ploy­ee hours and petty cash.

Both items aren’t kept track of ad­equately, Sing­er claimed.

“They just don’t have con­trols for it and that’s a ma­jor con­cern,” said Schmidt. 

Both can­did­ates said they’d like to im­prove the com­mis­sion­ers’ pub­lic re­la­tions and would work to pre­vent voter fraud through bet­ter edu­ca­tion for poll work­ers and a thor­ough job of vot­ing ana­lys­is.

••

Fi­nally, City Coun­cil can­did­ates took the floor. Those in at­tend­ance were all Re­pub­lic­an.

At-large can­did­ates Joe Mc­Col­gan, Mi­chael Un­ter­mey­er and Dav­id Oh were on hand. At-large can­did­ate Denny O’Bri­en, sent an aide, Dav­id Kralle.

Sixth Dis­trict can­did­ate Sandra Stew­art also was there. The 6th was long held by Demo­crat Joan Kra­jew­ski, who is re­tir­ing. Demo­crat Bobby Hen­on, who did not at­tend the de­bate, is heav­ily favored to take Kra­jew­ski’s place.

Mannes peppered the Re­pub­lic­ans with ques­tions, but mostly got sim­il­ar an­swers.

Asked if the city should make gun-con­trol meas­ures “more ri­gid” than that of the en­tire state, all can­did­ates agreed that they would en­force cur­rent laws be­fore en­croach­ing on any­one’s Second Amend­ment rights.

Asked about how they would fight cor­rup­tion, Stew­art, Mc­Col­gan and Un­ter­mey­er said term lim­its are needed in City Coun­cil. Oh nev­er men­tioned term lim­its, and provided a vague an­swer, stat­ing “people want to be treated fairly.”

Mc­Col­gan said that the is­sue of cor­rup­tion is a tricky one to tackle.

“You can put all of the laws in place that you want, but, just look at Wall Street, if people want to cheat, they are go­ing to cheat,” he said.

Asked about cut­ting waste in the city budget, Oh said he’d bring in budget­ing pro­fes­sion­als and oth­er ex­perts to “find out how to be more pro­duct­ive.”

Mc­Col­gan said he’d look at “what works and what doesn’t,” while Un­ter­mey­er said that any plan to totally re­vamp the city’s budget would be a Her­culean task.

He sug­ges­ted smal­ler goals, the first of which would be con­sid­er­ing sales of the city-owned air­port or golf courses to raise money.

“The city shouldn’t be in the busi­ness of run­ning busi­nesses,” he said.

At the end of the de­bate, it seemed the largest laugh of the night came when, as the can­did­ates wrapped up their cam­paign stances, Un­ter­mey­er said that, if he could, he’d hope to be a politi­cian like Vince Fumo or John Perzel.

The crowd laughed along with a smil­ing Un­ter­mey­er. Both of those of­fi­cials ended their ca­reers in polit­ic­al scan­dal and were con­victed of crimes.

“Re­gard­less of the end of their ca­reers,” re­tor­ted Un­ter­mey­er. “They brought money in­to Phil­adelphia.”

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­man@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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