Talk about buzz.
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. opened his new Roxborough office Friday, with guests both invited and unwelcome in attendance.
Jones’ office at 5462 Ridge Ave. shares an overhang with Baxter’s Pest Control (slogan: “God Creates; We Exterminate). Glancing up at a noisy insect overhead, Catina Windle, manager of Baxter’s, observed: “The wasps have started their cocoons.”
Windle wasn’t able to stick around for the ceremony, but she plans on chatting with her new neighbor about an issue all-too-familiar to her profession: the proliferation of bedbugs.
“I’d like to talk to the city about getting funding for bedbugs,” she said. “A lot of people in the city don’t have the resources to get them exterminated.”
‘We need to be near the people’
“We feel that in order for us to truly serve people, that we need to be near people,” Jones said before the ribbon-cutting for his long-awaited Roxborough district office. The Fourth District representative’s other office is in West Philadelphia.
Jones staffers will be on hand at the Ridge Avenue office full-time to assist with constituent requests. Jones said that in his four-plus years on Council, his office has handled more than 3,000 such requests, with a success rate he pinned at 90 percent.
“If you take care of the small things,” said Jones, “big things tend to take care of themselves.”
Jones announced on Friday that representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah and State Sens. Shirley Kitchen and Vincent Hughes will visit the office occasionally to assist constituents. Jones will be available at the office by appointment.
“By working together,” he said about his district, “we hope to keep this place pristine.”
Utilizing campaign funds
Jones campaign money, not city tax dollars, will be used to pay for both the new Roxborough office and his pre-existing office in Wynnefield, which is located near Jones’ home.
Jones told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week that campaign money will cover the $600-a-month rent at his Roxborough office, augmented by a “beat-up” 2003 Dell Computer and a phone line donated by the city.
Jane Roh, communications director for Council President Darrell Clarke, said councilpersons with sufficient campaign funds can use this money to underwrite district offices.
Roh explained that the core City Council budget covers the salaries of councilmembers and their staff. All other Council expenses – from mailers to housekeeping – are handled through the Council President’s fund.
“It’s the policy of this office to provide funds for Internet, telephones, and computers,” she said, adding that the use of such funding for district offices has not been an issue to date.
“If it comes up,” she concluded, “we will revisit that policy.”
A focus on constituent services
Zack Stalberg, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group, said the use of campaign money to finance district offices is legal – and practical.
“The campaigns are taking the burden off of the city,” he said, “and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.”
He said Council members have a tendency to focus on constituent services, while spending less time on issues that affect the entire city.
“Most councilpersons have defined their jobs in constituent services – it helps you get re-elected,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they remember their city-wide responsibilities.”
Also at risk is redundancy. Stalberg observed that 3-1-1 – the city services hotline – was designed to minimize Council offices’ role as a go-between for residents coping with city bureaucracy.
“It doesn’t seem to be working as planned,” he said, noting that many Philadelphians still rely on their Council representative to get problems solved.
“The citizens like it that way,” he said, “and the councilpersons like it that way.”
Jones said 3-1-1 is a “mass-approach” to problem-solving, whereas a district office is “up-close and personal.”
Jones explained that 3-1-1 considers a case “closed” when reported to the appropriate department; his office considers a case closed when “the pothole is filled.”
“We run circles around 3-1-1,” he said.
When it comes to district offices, Council is divided into three parts: the haves, the have-nots, and the somewhere-in-betweens.
At-large Council members don’t have district offices.
With two, Jones is a leader among district representatives.
Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon opened a new office last week in Tacony. Henon spokeswoman Courtney Voss said many Sixth District constituents have “Center City access issues.”
Tenth District Councilman Brian O’Neill has a district office off of Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast.
Situated in the middle are Seventh District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Ninth District Councilwoman Marian Tasco.
Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez said that despite requests for “quite some time,” she has not received a permanent space from the city.
Instead, she uses a Saturday morning community radio program to reach her constituents, and will often meet with residents following the broadcast.
Quinones-Sanchez congratulated Jones on the new office, saying, “I think it’s a necessity.”
Quinones-Sanchez said that she hopes to have a district office open by the end of the year.
In the Northwest section of the city, Councilwoman Marian Tasco’s staff shares space once a week at State Representative Mark Cohen’s district office in Bustleton.
Nothing in the ‘hood
In the Northwest, Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass told NewsWorks earlier this year that budgetary constraints delayed acquisition of a district office. A subsequent attempt to acquire a city-owned vacant property through the Vacant Property Review Committee – was unsuccessful.
“However, we will not let bureaucracy stand in the way of serving the constituents of the Eighth District in their neighborhood,” said Bass. “We will open a district office.”
Two members with Center City neighborhoods in their districts – Council President Darrell Clarke of the Fifth District and First District Councilman Mark Squilla – rely for now on their City Hall offices.
However, Squilla acknowledged the merit of such an office, and said that he is investigating the acquisition of one to serve constituents of the northern end of his district.
Speaking for the Second District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Zack Burgess, Johnson’s director of communications, said his office is considering its options, but added, “It’s not in the budget right now.”
Third District Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was not immediately available for comment.
‘You have to have access’
A high-ranking City Hall official said that both Bass’ and Quinones-Sanchez’s requests for district office space were placed only within the last two weeks, so it would not be accurate to talk about City Hall “holding up” the process.
In Clarke’s office, Jane Roh seemed to differ, suggesting that Mayor Nutter’s staff be asked why they are “getting in the way” of providing buildings owned by the city for use by Councilpersons.
Katie Martin, Mayor Nutter’s deputy press secretary, replied, “This administration has been a partner for two years on this topic, and we greatly value this relationship and will continue to work with them.”
Asked if he had advice for his colleagues without offices, Jones suggested getting a recreational vehicle to travel around their districts.
“You have to have access,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Councilwoman-at-large Blondell Reynolds Brown made a brief speech at the ceremony, praising Jones’ “stick-to-it-iveness” for following through on his commitment to serve the citizens of his district.
“It’s different when citizens can see you in the trenches,” she said. “They can reach out and touch you.”
One such citizen Friday was Bill Proud.
A lifelong Northwest resident, Proud sought help about an overgrown alley behind his house on the 100 block of Osborn Street in Roxborough; he was surprised to see the turnout for the office opening.
“I didn’t think there would be anybody here,” he remarked.
Bearing a digital camera with images of overgrown vegetation, Proud spoke with Josh Cohen, the special assistant to Jones who will be staffing the Roxborough office. Proud said he was glad to have Jones’ new office nearby:
“That’s what it’s all about – taking care of the neighborhood.”