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 firstname.lastname@example.org