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Uprooting corrupt habits is a heavy lift

Sunday, April 11th, 2010



Lots of people who backed Michael Nutter as a reform candidate for mayor are getting a little antsy at the slow pace of change. But Chris Satullo observes in this week’s Centre Square essay, one current fight shows just how much work even a little reform can be.

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Griping about corruption is easy.

So is calling for bold reform. (Trust me, I have lots of experience at both.)

What’s hard is actually making reform stick.

Just ask Michael Nutter.

When Nutter rode triumphantly into Philadelphia City Hall in 2008, some of his naïve backers believed that, in no time flat, he could unclog the congealed arteries of a corrupt city government.

Fast forward to today, and the BRT follies.

Whew. Changing a corrupt culture is a lot trickier than changing a flat tire.

BRT stands for Board of Revision of Taxes. This august body sets real estate tax assessments for every property in the city.

To say that the BRT had made a hash of its main task is a little like saying Tiger Wood has not been an entirely model husband.

The BRT’s assessments are riddled with inconsistencies, anachronisms and small corruptions.

So Nutter took bold action. He told the useless but well-paid BRT board to stand down, and put his own guy, a skilled corporate manager, in charge.

All the while, some Council members carped and kvetched, because a lot of BRT workers  are loyal political hacks.

That’s one lesson from the Book of Reform: The very people whose votes you need to upend the settled arrangements often benefit from those arrangements.

Another lesson: People nestled into sinecures rarely yield easily. They know where the hidden levers are. They put way more energy into combating reform than the casual fans of reform put into backing it.

Witness the BRT. The board members, who make 70 grand a year to do their jobs with jaw-dropping incompetence, had signed an agreement with Nutter to get out of his new guy’s way for six months. The six months are up now, and the BRT is no longer playing ball.

Nutter struck back hard, asking Council to cut the board members pay to 18 grand and freezing the BRT’s budget. City voters will be asked in May to end the whole unaccountable mess.

And who set things up this way in this first place? In an irony of the Book of Reform, turns out it was the well-meaning reformers of another era. Their bright ideas ended up being this era’s corrupt burden.

Reform is never once and done. The ants always find a way back into the kitchen. Reform is a long, constant struggle, never as easy it looks from the outside.


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