Four most interesting moments (so far) from Kenney’s town halls

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Philadelphia’s Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has been out meeting the people this week with a series of town hall style events in North, South, West and Northeast Philadelphia.

The idea behind the town halls is for Kenney and members of his transition team to get feedback from residents they’ll fold into their big transition report in January. The final town hall takes place tonight in Strawberry Mansion.

A few hundred people have shown up to each of the four meetings so far and their concerns are not surprising: trash, crime, sagging commercial corridors, and of course, the dire financial situation of Philadelphia’s education system and the conversion of traditional public schools to charters.

These are the problems that have dogged Philly for a long, long time, but there were some interesting moments:

1. Rizzo While there was a lot of complaint-lodging, some people did come armed with suggestions, such as Olney resident Brad Wilson who pitched Kenney on holding a contest in which the three cleanest neighborhoods in the city get tax breaks.

“When Frank Rizzo ran this city back in the ’70s this city was clean,” he said. “You didn’t see trash nowhere. But ever since he left there’s trash everywhere.”

Audience members who had been applauding and laughing, but the mood changed.

And it wasn’t the only time Rizzo was invoked. At Thursday’s town hall in Mayfair, a man who did not give his name expressed concerns about Kenney’s push to end the police practice of stop-and-frisk and decriminalize of small amounts of marijuana.

“There’s a statue of one mayor in the city of Philadelphia and my father was a cop under him,” the man said. “Let’s have a second mayor statue in this city. Let’s take our city back.”

Kenney, who selectively jumped in to respond to questions or comments, defended his proposals and called Richard Ross is a “stellar selection” for his police commissioner.

2. Lights Out Also on Thursday night, Kenney started answering a question about gun control in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, when all of a sudden, the lights in the room went out. They quickly flipped back on.

“That’s the NRA,” Kenney said, without missing and beat getting a big laugh. “They’re flipping the lights!”

After the moment of levity, Kenney turned back to what he called a “serious issue.”

“You know what I’d love to have passed? How about you have to report your gun stolen?” 

He went on to say he supported a 2011 bill sponsored by state Sen. Christina Tartaglione (D-Phila.) requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns to cut down on straw purchases. That bill never made it out of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee.

3. “Christmas is Coming” Among the many questions about education, Germantown resident Joe Budd expressed his impatience at having to wait to start working on Kenney’s community schools proposal.

“Why can’t we start now doing something?” he asked, proposing to have his community organization start pitching in by cleaning up school yards.

“I’m not sworn in yet,” Kenney responded. “I can’t really start directing departments and other folks to do certain things until I get there, so I’m getting there soon.

“Christmas is coming,” he added.

Kenney has repeated that sentiment at other town halls and in a speech at the Vision Zero conference on Thursday. But while his staff has already been working on some of his initiatives since the primary, Kenney seems to be thoroughly enjoying these final moments before taking the helm of the fifth largest city in America — cracking jokes and making promises.

4. Culture Change Another new Kenney catch-phrase has emerged from these town halls. As residents ask him what he’s going to do to fix the schools, the trash problem, the crime rate, the (insert issue here), he responds this way: “It’s what we’re going to do,” he said, emphasizing he wants to work with residents to change the city and accomplish his goals.

During the town halls, he sits and takes notes. He takes papers people give him with information about their particular situations and says he’ll look into them — remember, he was a City Councilman at-large for over 20 years, so this kind of constituent service stuff is in his blood.

I asked him if he’s feeling overwhelmed by taking on the concerns of the whole city. Kenney said he wants a culture change in Philadelphia, to make it a city where ideas — and initiative — come “from the bottom up.”

“I don’t have a magic wand and I’m not going to solve every one of these problems instantly,” he said. “It takes setting up a process that moves everyone forward and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

As one member of his transition team put it to me: it’s Kenney’s job to create a culture in which residents can effectively make demands on the system, rather than being shut out or trapped in endless loops of red tape.

Again, the goal of the town halls is to pass on ideas and concerns to the people helping Kenney form his administration and his priorities. But they’re also a chance for him to sell his ideas to the public and sew seeds of good will for the times when hard choices have to be made.

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