Natalia Olson Urtecho, a rising star in Philadelphia public, private and nonprofit circles – with myriad connections up and down the political spectrum – resigned her volunteer posts on both the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and the Zoning Code Commission, after a senior city official said she violated a City Charter rule.
Olson Urtecho is also a member of the PlanPhilly Advisory Board, a position that will be up following the group’s September meeting, when the full board is turned over.
Olson Urtecho, speaking to PlanPhilly from Brazil this weekend, said the violation was a fundraising event she helped hold for U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (and current Senate candidate) in Center City last month. She said the perceived conflict was an oversight and “unfortunate,” but accepted the decision by Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman.
“If anything, my integrity being questioned in that way…” Olson Urtecho said, with a sigh. “There are so many things in this administration that can be said are not great examples of integrity. But that’s not for me to say. All I’ve done is a good job, and said what I thought, and did it in a clean way.”
The official announcement is expected at Tuesday afternoon’s August meeting of the Planning Commission, by Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, the commission’s chair.
Olson Urtecho said she was “shocked” by the allegations of wrongdoing, and assumed that, “You make one mistake, you get warned.” But she related that Markman said there could be no exceptions. She said she’s especially disappointed to not be able to finish up her work as vice chair of the Zoning Code Commission, which is re-writing the code for the first time since the mid-20th century. “It’s really close to my heart and I worked so hard, attended so many meetings all over the city, so many long nights,” she said.
The city’s new IntegrityWorks web site directly addresses those who voluntarily sit on boards and commissions, saying, “Although you are not a City employee, many of the ethics laws and regulations that apply to City employees including those described in the Rules of the Road section of this site, apply to you, too.” They include political activity.
“You must know and follow the rules,” the web site stipulates “You can also apply the ‘six o’clock news’ test: would you want the news media to report your actions? If the answer is no, or even ‘I’m not sure,’ then you should refrain from that course of action.”
“I made a mistake,” Olson Urtecho said. “I understand the consequences.” But, “this is so ridiculous that I’m being punished like this, for this one thing,” adding that helping out with fundraisers is something not exactly out of the ordinary for other, unnamed, city officials.
Being asked to resign, she said, was “overboard, especially for someone who is [working as a commissioner] for free.”
Efforts to reach city officials on Sunday were unsuccessful.
As for the fundraiser at the Capitol Grille on Broad Street for Sestak, “I’m not sorry for that,” Olson Urtecho said, comparing it to getting other solid leaders elected, including Nutter. “Our hands are tied because we serve on these commissions, based on rules that are so old, and the Charter has proven, again and again, as to how [it] impedes development and good leadership.”
She continued: “You can attend a vast number of fundraisers and contribute a ton of money… but you can’t organize anything, whatsoever.”
A veteran of the U.S. State Department, Olson Urtecho was appointed to both commissions by Mayor Michael Nutter in early 2008. In March 2009, the transportation planner moved from her position at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to H2L2, an architectural, planning and design firm with an international presence, spending part of her time in New York City.
Also in 2009, she also co-founded the Green Economy Task Force, a coalition of Philadelphia business and labor groups convened and led by the Greater Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network (Olson Urtecho is co-chair of group’s policy committee). In February 2009, she and about a dozen other area leaders went to Capitol Hill and lobbied both Pennsylvania senators and a handful of members of the House of Representatives – including Sestak. One result was Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia to kick off the Obama administration’s green jobs effort via the stimulus package.
In the past year, the multi-lingual Olson Urtecho has been globe-trotting on behalf of the city and clients, visiting Latin America, Europe and Asia. Earlier this year, she took a three-week trade mission to China with representatives of the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia and Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business.
With the State Department from 1988 until 2001, Olson Urtecho served as the U.S. Chief of Protocol in Budapest, Hungary, for five years, where she worked on NATO accession and flood relief missions, along with setting up the first national environmental protection entity in Eastern Europe.
She earned a political science degree from Northeastern University, and in 2005 received a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, she volunteers on the Wharton Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership Faculty Advisory Committee, and the Philadelphia International Task Force.
“I have served this country and this city. To be questioned like that, I was just taken aback,” she said. “This is one of the many reasons the City Charter needs to be overhauled … I would rather not be tied to these rules and support leaders that will bring change to this state and city. I’m not sorry for supporting a great leader like Congressman Sestak. I believe that it is my duty as a leader to support my party, so I will actually do a fundraising event for Dan Onorato at the end of September. …We need to support great leadership and I will try my hardest to get Onorato elected.”
Contact the reporter at TWalsh@PlanPhilly.com.