Rendell backs challenger in Philly controller’s race [updated]

 Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell endorses Rebecca Rhynhart in the for Philadelphia city controller race during a press conference in front of the Municipal Services Building in Center City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell endorses Rebecca Rhynhart in the for Philadelphia city controller race during a press conference in front of the Municipal Services Building in Center City. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rebecca Rhynhart, who’s challenging incumbent Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz in the May Democratic primary received a nice boost Tuesday in the form an endorsement from former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

Before he was governor, Rendell was a popular two-term mayor in Philadelphia, generally credited with bringing the city back from financial ruin.

Pounding a podium in front of the city’s Municipal Services Building, Rendell spoke of Rhynhart’s experience in the private financial sector and her work as city treasurer and budget director under Mayor Michael Nutter.

“There has not been in my lifetime a candidate for controller with that kind of financial background,” Rendell said. “When you compare her to the incumbent, who was a state representative and a lawyer and had no financial background, the difference is stark.”

Butkovitz is seeking his fourth term in the job as the city’s elected financial watchdog.

In nearly 15 years on the job, he said he’s battled waste and corruption — adding that his audits of former Sheriff John Green led to critical reforms and, eventually, a federal indictment of Green.

Rendell said those who participated in the massive women’s marches after the inauguration of President Donald Trump should get out and vote for Rhynhart.

Rendell said she’s the kind of candidate Philadelphians should embrace — smart, energetic, and not a product of the city’s Democratic political organization.

“I think she’ll be independent,” Rendell said. “She’ll go after waste and inefficiency in city government departments without any fear of ruffling political feathers.”

Butkovitz, who said his political clout gives him the independence to ruffle feathers, said his audits have made trouble for plenty of powerful politicians.

Philadelphia Parking Authority flap

Rendell said that Butkovitz has, in fact, “refused to ruffle political feathers in most cases.”

“I had personal experience with that in 2009 when I was governor,” Rendell said. “We asked Mr. Butkovitz to audit the parking authority, and we offered to pay for it … his response was, ‘Why would I do that?'”

Rendell said it was his policy director Donna Cooper who had that conversation with Butkovitz.

Cooper, now executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, confirms his account.

Cooper said the administration wanted the audit because there were reports of waste and excessive staffing at the parking authority, which was supposed to devote much of its revenue to fund the Philadelphia School District.

Cooper said she met with Butkovitz at his office and found him uninterested in probing the parking authority, long known as a political patronage haven.

“My sense of the meeting was that the urgency of finding the resources for the school district did not outweigh the controller’s concern for the political ramifications,” Cooper said.

Wrong, Butkovitz said.

In a phone interview, he said he was willing to do the audit, but that the state didn’t come up with the promised money.

He said he eventually funded the audit from his own office, and produced a report critical of the PPA, an account confirmed in media reports from the time.

All sides agree it was a financial audit — and not a more comprehensive “performance audit,” which would take a longer and closer look at the productivity of the agency.

The parking authority did make some changes, dismissing consultants and cutting costs, as much in response to media reports as the audit.

In 2013, well after the PPA audit request, Rendell endorsed Butkovitz for re-election, saying he’d been “a dogged controller when it comes to attacking waste,” adding that “he doesn’t go for spectacular headlines, but only strives to find areas where the city can make more money and improve his performance.”

The primary is May 16.

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