Packed house hears big Eighth District field dig into issues

Voters from the city’s Eighth District Wednesday night packed the pews of a Germantown church for a spirited, yet civil introduction to the crowded field seeking the open Council seat.

During NewsWorks’ “Eyes on the Eighth” debate at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown, all seven of the race’s Democratic candidates made their case to become the first fresh face in the Eighth in 16 years.

Democratic Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller announced in January that she would not seek a fifth term in office.

The candidates hoping to occupy the open post are: Cindy Bass, William Durham, Andrew Lofton, Greg Paulmier, Robin Tasco, Howard Treatman and Verna Tyner.

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The diverse crop of questions, largely generated from neighbors who attended three NewsWorks’ voter forums, asked candidates to lay out their vision for the district and weigh in on a few local controversies.

An office in the district

Near the top of the two-hour event, candidates discussed their plans for bringing transparency and accountability to the position; characteristics that many voters feel have faltered under previous leadership.

Each candidate vowed to create an office in the district, something Miller has often been criticized for not having. Most also said they want to hold regularly scheduled meetings with the community.

Lofton, a first-time Council candidate, said he wants to create a community council that would meet montly to chart actions plans for each of the diverse district’s communities. That group, he said, would help steer each neighborhood in a direction that residents support.

“We make a decision as a team, as a community on what we want in our community and what we want to have built in our community,” said Durham.

Tyner, a long-time Council staffer, said efforts like Lofton’s will be crucial to creating a much-needed dialogue with residents. “Lack of communication causes problems,” said Tyner.

Fewer development surprises

The call for better communication and a stronger connection between the community and its next Council representative was echoed in a later question about economic development.

Prompted by the uproar over the Chelten Plaza development deal in Germantown, candidates were asked how they would avoid potential controversy when handling projects funded by public money.

Residents from that neighborhood have expressed continued outrage after a deal to build a low-end super-market and dollar store anchored-plaza was made without their input. That project, to be named Chelten Plaza, is partially funded with state allocated dollars.

Paulmier, a four-time candidate who lives within walking distance of the proposed project, said it doesn’t make sense for residents to be cut of the loop when major development projects are on the table.

“If the community decides what should be there, the chances that it will succeed will be much greater,” said Paulmier.

Treatman, a newcomer to city politics, said the district has long suffered from back-door development deals. He said it’s time for things to change.

“It’s got to end. It’s got to start with integrity and it’s got to start with City Council people and elected officials who are independent and who aren’t tied to cronies and favored developers,” he said.

Dropping DROP

The most raucous moment came when the moderator, Chris Satullo of WHYY/NewsWorks, asked about the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Program.   Voters have become so upset with elected officials tapping into this early retirement plan for city workers that a few City Council incumbents chose not to run for re-election rather than jeopardize their payments.

Every candidate in attendance expressed their concerns about the program. All but Cindy Bass pledged not to support for Council president any member who has taken or might take a DROP payment. Several, led by an arm-waving Tyner, stood up to stress their opposition to DROP.

“All they did was hustle us,” said Durham, referring to Council members who retired, collected a lump-sum through the program and came back to work the next day. “I believe that it was wrong and we just need to move on.”

Newcomer Robin Tasco, a certified electrician, said she’s not motivated by personal gain like financial incentives, but instead wants to focus on representing residents. “I’m no nonsense,” said Tasco.

Bass, who ran in the Eighth in 2007, explained her refusal to rule out voting for DROP-eligible Council members for president.

She said she doesn’t support the program, but added that “it’s important that we don’t limit our options.” Bass said having the right person as Council president could potentially be beneficial to the residents of the Eighth District.

Who’s independent?

One voter-generated question asked the candidates to explain why they should not be viewed as beholden to power brokers or major donors.Most of the candidates took the opportunity to proudly declare their lack of major party and union endorsements, many taking not-so-veiled shots at Bass.Bass has recently strung together a number of notable endorsements, including one from Mayor Michael Nutter and her long-time boss Democratic U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah. She’s also been endorsed by a number of city unions. “I could easily ask for support from elected officials and have them dancing around me also, but I decided not to do that because what I think is most important is your support,” said Durham.In what amounted to a direct response to her detractors, Bass said that she has always been an independent thinker and is not running as a result of her political connections.The endorsements she’s received during the 2011 race, she said, haven’t changed her. “I am the same person who started out with absolutely no support and have worked my way here and I hope to have your support, which is the most important support any candidate can have,” she said.  

Who runs the schools?

The candidates were also split on whether to support returning the school district immediately to the exclusive control of the city, ending the School Reform Commission with its state appointees.  Tyner and Durham said they favored the idea eventually, but that the city would have to improve its own governance first.

Treatman, who supported a return to full local control, said the SRC had been a vehicle for then-Gov. Ed Rendell to channel school aid to Philadelphia. Now, he said, with Gov. Tom Corbett slashing school funding, that rationale was gone.

All “Eyes on the Eighth” events were co-sponsored by NewsWorks, the Committee of Seventy, G-Town Radio, the Germantown Community Connection and the League of Women Voters. The voter forums that generated the questions – held in Germantown, Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill – were planned and led by the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

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