The pandemonium that erupted at City Council when Mayor Nutter tried to deliver his annual budget message last week gave us all a front-row view of political theater at its rawest. The script went this way:
Act I: The mayor strides to a podium decorated with a small American flag and begins by honoring a municipal staffer for his effort. But the whistles and chants pouring down from the balcony of the ornate Council Chamber make it impossible for anyone present to hear a word he says. Union members, including city firefighters, who are angry about working without contracts drown him out.
Undaunted, the mayor refuses to stop: “I have nothing but the deepest respect for the thousands of public employees who work on behalf of a million and a half Philadelphians. You want a fair contract and so do I. But a fair contract must balance the interests of hard-working taxpayers and our dedicated employees.”
The chorus in the balcony rises to fever pitch.
At this point, Council President Darrell Clarke, standing behind Nutter, pulls the trap door and accepts a motion to recess council. Mayor Nutter seems to be among the last to know.
After talking to Clarke, Nutter returns to the podium and continues his speech as council members, who know political roadkill when they see it, file out of the chamber. Nutter finally gives up the ghost, but not before saying these final words: “We, as a city, have to come together.”
Act II: The mayor retires to his bone-quiet reception room and delivers his budget message to 20 people on his staff. They greet the boss with a standing ovation.
Possible Act III: Council President Clarke says he intends to get directly involved in contract talks. He says he recessed the council meeting because he had been told some union members were prepated to be arrested.
“I think that the worst thing that could happen is to have the police come in in force and arrest a group of municipal workers who are simply trying to get a contract.”
It’s fair to say union members achieved what they set out to do. They humbled a stubborn mayor on a ceremonial day. They also succeeded in putting the anger and frustration they feel about working without contracts out there — front and center — for all Philadelphians to see.
Now, it’s time to pull the curtain down on high-drama performances by both sides and get back to the hard business of making real progress on contract talks with the three city unions.
Open minds and civil dialogue can lead to common ground. Leave the popcorn behind. ••