Donna Reed Miller talks about legacy, silly rumors during exit interview with NewsWorks

    It’s two hours after City Council’s last session of the year ended, also wrapping up Donna Reed Miller’s tenure as the Eighth District’s councilwoman.

    Reed Miller sits at a table in chambers where her nameplate used to be. The primary issue in her mind is health care. Specifically, how does she arrange for it now that she’s almost an ex-councilwoman?

    She figures it has something to do with COBRA, even though she has another five years of benefits coming from the city. She figures dental and vision probably won’t be a major expense.

    Still, this is the first task on her mind after an finishing an exit interview she agreed to do despite an aversion to engaging with news media she think have treated her unfairly.

    Miller has been discussing what she hopes will be regarded as her legacy after 16 years in office, and the absurdity of what she hears whispered down the lane about her.

    Miller hopes people recognize her guiding philosophy was helping those most in need. She assures you that she is not “having a castle built somewhere” while using Germantown as a residential front.

    “You don’t have to like me”

    In the interview, Miller is asked what she wishes she could have done that she wasn’t able to accomplish.

    “I wish we had more money to do development,” Miller says off-the-bat, lauding former Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative as a model for investing where people need it most.

    This is fresh in her mind because Street just stopped by her third-floor offices an hour or so earlier to wish her well.

    “We got $10 million of [NTI] demolition funds and I put $7 million in Tioga alone. We started in the worst spots. We were able to rebuild some areas in need,” she continues. “Some people think that the district is only Germantown; they kind of think of it as their own neighborhood. Well, I have six generations of family here. Most districts have a neighborhood that’s challenged. The Eighth has five or six that are.”

    She talks about a project which brought 83 rental units to Allegheny West.

    And how she “really wanted to do a home-ownership project in Tioga” but the money wasn’t there.

    And how the Nicetown Court development offers dozens of affordable rental units.

    And how people are still upset about making a portion of 20th Street in Logan one-way years later.

    And how, from time to time, she’d drive by the playground near the Queen Lane Apartments – currently the focal point of a neighborhood/PHA battle –”as a test” to confirm her suspicion that it’s rarely used.

    “People can criticize and whip up something that they really don’t know about, really don’t understand,” she says. “You don’t have to like me, but know that I’m here to do something good for your community. I just don’t understand” the anger out there.

    “I’ve always been accessible”

    Among the widely wielded criticisms of Miller’s tenure is that she didn’t make herself accessible to the community. She’s heard it over the years to the point that she knows exactly what she wants to say when it comes up.

    “I’ve always been accessible. My Council office door is open. It’s always open. I ask them, ‘Did you come down to see me? My door’s open.’ I have always been active in the neighborhood,” she says, noting that some complainers never asked her to attend the meetings they’d later gripe that she missed. “They didn’t invite me, and that’s OK. I know what I’m doing.”

    As for her successor – Cindy Bass will be sworn in on Jan. 2 – Miller says Bass will find it challenging to come up with money for any development, but that projects already in the pipeline will help. She recommended empowering public/private partnerships, particularly along Germantown Avenue.

    “A lot of the stores in Mt. Airy didn’t exist [years ago] without Mt. Airy USA. You need a corridor manager. That’s what Mt. Airy USA provided,” she says.

    “We did try to help”

    When Councilman Curtis Jones stops by chambers to give her an informal farewell –  Miller had missed Council’s champagne toast – he says Reed Miller did look out for those in need. As examples, Jones offers the elderly, handicapped, those who support gun control, those who benefit from the “Ban the Box” legislation that Miller championed, and anybody who likes the walk/don’t walk countdown clocks at crosswalks.

    After Jones leaves, talk turns to the Chelten Plaza brouhaha. In Reed Miller’s mind, it’s the biggest development in the district during her tenure and that those opposing it really don’t see the reality of their neighborhood.

    “They wanted Trader John’s or Trader Joe’s or something, but that store didn’t want to come here. Save-A-Lot has been in this neighborhood for 30 years,” she said. “When I was younger, you didn’t have to go outside the neighborhood to shop. Germantown and Chelten, that’s all you needed. I don’t know why those stores left. [The Chelten Plaza protestors] are the same people who chased away development that wanted to come to Chelten and Wayne. It would have had a Kids R Us, a Ritz theater. But they chased it away.”

    Heading back down to her almost-cleared-out office, Miller runs though some the topics of some of the rumors she’s heard about herself. The Germantown Settlement chaos. (Not involved). Pay-to-play. (C’mon, really?). The whole building-a-castle theory. (I wish.).

    And this rumor: That she’ll start working for developer Richard Snowden the day after her Council tenure officially ends.

    Not true, she says, but laughs upon setting foot in her office and seeing that Snowden is there talking to office staffers.  Her supposed new boss looks as if the whole idea is news to him.

    To sum up her tenure, Reed Miller returns to her favorite theme: “We did try to help and we did help a lot of people with a lot of different issues.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.