Spiking of PGW sale a classic example of how not to run a government


I live in a city with chronic gas pains.

Let’s review the latest in the sad saga of PGW, the city-owned gas utility.

In March, Mayor Nutter unveiled a plan to sell PGW to a Connecticut firm for $1.86 billion. He said the city’s profit from the sale, somewhere between $400 million and $600 million, would be used to shore up the city’s grievously underfunded pension plans.

Again, that was in March.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Clearly, this was a consequential and complicated proposal.

City Council, which needed to approve the deal with UIL Inc., deserved some time to sift through the details and assess the ramifications.

On the one hand, while PGW has often been a mismanaged mess, it’s been better run in recent years. It tosses $18 million year into the city’s coffers. Also, the sale of the utility into private hands might cost some PGW workers their jobs.

On the other hand, the pension fund sorely needs this infusion. And UIL, this experienced company bidding to buy PGW, might be better equipped to make desperately needed investments in the utility’s infrastructure and to position it for a winning role in Pennsylvania new, Marcellus Shale-driven energy economy.

So, does this sound to you like a decision worthy of a lot of solid public debate? Are you thinking that City Council must have spent a lot of the intervening months gathering varied input, thinking things through at public hearings?

You’re new to Philadelphia, aren’t you?

Express line to the trashcan

Last week, Council tossed the sale proposal in the trashcan without so much as a single public hearing and with no public vote.  And it did so even before it even released for public review a consultant’s study for which is paid a half million bucks. 

This was a performance of legislative arrogance and secrecy that would have looked right at home in Moscow or Beijing.

I’m not saying this deal deserved to go through. I truly don’t know. How could I, when Council convened zero public hearings on the proposal, making no effort to ensure that multiple stakeholders’ views were aired in public?

This was a rank violation of the spirit if not the letter of Pennsylvania’s open meeting law. A decision as consequential as this one should always be made through a public vote, preferably after ample public hearings. 

With so little public debate, we’re left to conclude this rejection of a nearly $2 billion deal was just another spitball in Council’s long-running feud with a mayor some of its members clearly loathe.

Former mayor Bill Green Sr. once called out Philadelphia City Council as the worst legislative body in the Free World.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal