Gridlock and grudges: toxic relationships in Pennsylvania cities

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     The 500 block of Cherry Street in downtown Reading, Pa.  The city is one of 20 municipalities in the state's Act 47 program to help financially distressed local governments. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    The 500 block of Cherry Street in downtown Reading, Pa. The city is one of 20 municipalities in the state's Act 47 program to help financially distressed local governments. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    The Commonwealth’s Act 47 program to help cash-strapped local governments doesn’t address how elected officials might get along better, despite how critical relationships are to their financial well-being.

    Local officials who have trouble getting along have some options for mending their relationships. The League of Minnesota Cities has a dedicated task force and website focusing on civility in government.

    California’s Institute for Local Government suggests codes of conduct or ethics, and posts some examples. They include obvious — if not always observed — stuff like complying with the law, and subtler things that are, in fact, vital, such as sharing information.

    New Jersey, Michigan, and Tennessee also have guidelines for good government behavior.

    The Pennsylvania Municipal League addresses civility in part of an hour-long video,  and offers related training sessions.

    But although discord among local officials risks financial instability, even though distressed municipalities have no room for error and cannot afford for anything to delay or derail government initiatives, Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program to help them sticks to strictly fiscal matters.

    It does not address how to repair — or avoid — toxic relationships.

    The ramifications of failed relationships

    The reasons differ, but bad blood and controversy are practically universal in struggling cities.

    In Harrisburg, Coucilman Ben Allat says, the primary source of animosity is the botched retrofit of the capital city’s incinerator. (That’s because the bond deals that financed the attempted upgrade accounted for the lion’s share of debt that nearly bankrupted the city and are the source of spiked parking and trash disposal fees).

    Resident and one-time Congressional candidate Sheila Dow-Ford says different levels of government also spar over dealing with sinkholes and fixing potholes on city streets that might, say, be owned by the state.

    Antietam Lake is a sore point in Reading, according to Berks County Community Fund Executive Director Kevin Murphy.  Berks County officials agreed to buy the lake, which had been created by a failing dam. Reading City Council thought the county should have paid more, so it sued the county.

    “I think that the problems these cities face are structural, they have a lot to do with public policy. But it doesn’t change the fact there’s been a lot of bad behavior within the cities themselves,” Murphy says.

    Still more grudges stem from the city suing the county again, this time over a deal pledging $900,000 per year to the city library in exchange for control of the Reading Regional Airport.

    City officials’ reputation for suing themselves also hurts their reputation, Murphy says. All of this can erode the confidence of residents and would-be partners outside the city.

    A bad opinion from the latter group might compromise getting grants, loans, financing partners and private investment – all key to a functional government and quality of life in the community it’s supposed to serve.

    It’s tough, though, when City Hall’s running on fumes, says Eron Lloyd, chief of staff for outgoing Reading Mayor Vaughn Spencer. “We spend so much time dealing with, you know, keeping the train running so to speak – taking out the trash, really – that we don’t have the time to stay on top of those relationships,” Lloyd says.

    Broken connections can harm finances

    When relationships falter, communication is sure to follow.

    Lloyd recalls how such lapses created a financial planning crisis in Reading.

    The city had been borrowing and transferring money back and forth from its water authority for years to balance its bank accounts – at least, on paper.

    The tactic was even part of the city’s Act 47 recovery plan, which state officials helped write and, by law, must approve.

    So Lloyd was blindsided when it was banned by Pennsylvania lawmakers a couple years ago.

    Thousands of bills are introduced in the state General Assembly every year. Those related to municipal finance have to compete for attention with those pushing sexier, simpler topics.

    Local officials often instead find out about the drier, more complex legislation that will affect them through their state-level counterparts or groups like the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

    Reading officials did not find out through any of those channels, though.

    “We had no idea the bill was coming. By the time it was passed, there was really nothing we could do, and it immediately pulled several million dollars out of our general fund budget every year,” Lloyd says.

    Gridlock over grudges

    Such a litany of litigation and a brief budget crisis brought on by seeming negligence are just some examples of the types of poor performance that could cost elected officials their seats.

    Incumbents were ousted in two consecutive mayoral elections in Reading and Harrisburg, where a couple council members failed in their re-election bids in this year’s primaries.

    But plenty of races were uncontested elsewhere.

    And normally, voter turnout trends much lower in distressed cities than other Pennsylvania municipalities.

    Lloyd recalls working the polls at a church in Reading a few years ago.

    “I didn’t know that around the corner of the church was where the entry for the food pantry was. Probably, like, four outta five people that would come up were coming up for the food pantry, not coming to vote,” Lloyd says.

    He says the experience disturbed him.

    “Our community’s become so hand-to-mouth, it won’t even engage itself to help direct its own future to get it back into a more prosperous direction,” he says.

    Leadership consultant Peter Diamond says accountability is critical.

    “If organizations haven’t built it in, or governments or politicians – it hasn’t really been built into that, then people can take advantage of that,” Diamond says.

    Diamond deals mainly with the private sector, but notes overlap with politics and government. He says lackluster leaders in both arenas also often avoid making tough calls.

    But gridlock also results from grudges, first-term Harrisburg Councilman Ben Allat admits.  Some are over events that transpired a decade ago, or longer, he says.

    “Some of my colleagues on council bring up things that happened five, 10 years ago,” Allat says. “Did it matter at the time?  Yes.  Was it a mistake then?  Yes.  Are we just doomed to repeat it? No, we don’t have to be. But that shouldn’t … that shouldn’t paralyze us.”

    Editor’s note: this story has been updated to include more information about training available from PML.

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