Inauguration Day: The poet, the mayor and the clerk

    Yesterday’s inaugural ceremonies for Mayor Nutter, City Council and assorted other officials was the usual overwrought, two-hour award of political spoils from the municipal election.

    But I have three things to share from the event – a novelty, a pleasure, and something which leaves me uneasy.

    Let’s start with the uneasiness. It comes from Mayor Nutter’s inaugural speech, in which he spoke with conviction about fighting gun violence and turning the city schools around.

    I know that the mayor cares deeply about both these issues. I also know that they’re the same issues that have vexed mayors of aging cities in the United States for decades and have proved very tough to tackle.

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    And I didn’t hear much from the mayor or his aides that left with me with confidence much will change. The school system is the middle of what must be the 37th period of rebirth and renewal I’ve seen since I’ve been covering this city.

    So many smart, hardworking people of good will have tried and failed to transform the schools here that it’s hard to believe this effort, in a time of financial scarcity will do better. We can always hope.

    On the issue of crime and violence, some cities have at times managed to do things that mattered. In the 1990’s New York City raised taxes, hired thousands more cops and adopted an aggressive, data-drived crime fighting strategy that’s had an enduring impact.

    When John Timoney came to Philadelphia in the late 90’s, he brought Compstat, a crime-mapping and deployment approach that, with other anti-gun violence efforts underway seemed to make a dent in the problem.

    In 1995, there were 432 murders in Philadelphia. Two years after Timoney became commissioner, the number dropped to a low of 292. He left, and it crept back over 400. The Nutter team has cut it to the 320’s, but the rate has risen the last two years, and the city has the highest per capita homicide rate of the nation’s ten largest cities.

    The things the mayor talked about doing yesterday seemed small and incremental, and when I spoke to his police commissioner before the inauguration cermony, he essentially said we have too many creeps in this town and we have to lock ’em up.

    I know the administration is still developing its thinking on this, and I hope more innovative stuff emerges.

    The most interesting thing I’ve come across in this area is the work of David Kennedy, a self-taught criminologist who’s gotten results in a lot of cities. His book Don’t Shoot is one of the most amazing non-fiction books I’ve ever read. You can get a quick sense of his ideas in this interview on Fresh Air.

    As I said, I believe in the mayor’s commitment to these issues. I hope he and his team are up to the challenge.

    Now the novelty.

    Inaugurals are almost always tedious affairs, but this one had a first: an original work from the city’s first Poet Laureate, Sonya Sanchez. She said she only had a week’s notice to come up with the verse for this occasion, but she she took the podium, she delivered it with energy and soul.

    You can listen by playing the audio above, then write and tell me what it means. It was kind of hard to absorb at the time.

    Finally, the pleasure.

    The chief clerk of Philadelphia City Council for the past few years has been Michael Decker, a man who came up through the ranks in the clerk’s office, a den of patronage where standards of competence vary.

    But Decker has transformed the operation in ways that really matter. You can now easily search for bills online, and get full transcripts of public hearings with exhibits. I know Michael believes in making Council’s work accessible to the public, and he takes his task extraordinarily seriously.

    But here’s the thing: The chief clerk of Council is an elected post, chosen by the 17 members. So with the Council presidency changing hands and six members coming in, there was a chance that Decker might be replaced.

    I’m pleased to say he was elected yesterday in a unanimous vote. Council got that one right, and we’re all better off for it.

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