Transparency, accountability in political conventions a tale of two cities

    Vivian Stowall of Denver shows off her DNC themed glasses at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte

    Vivian Stowall of Denver shows off her DNC themed glasses at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte

    With the Democratic National Convention just three months away, the people of Philadelphia are getting neither the accountability nor the transparency they deserve, despite extending a $15 million lifeline should Convention funding fall short.

    The DNC’s Host Committee — a private entity tasked with soliciting donations to fund the sprawling three-day event to the tune of $85 million — has declined to disclose even an estimated amount of the corporate and individual donations it has received thus far, even with the possibility that the Convention might ultimately be bailed out with millions of Philadelphia taxpayer dollars. (This happened in Charlotte in 2012 — albeit with a privately-funded credit line.)

    In what may be another red flag, The Inquirer reported last month that the Host Committee improperly filed its nonprofit paperwork with the IRS.

    “We are not specifying our fundraising numbers to date,” Host Committee spokesperson Anna Adams-Sarthou said. “However, we feel very good about our progress and are hitting all of our benchmarks.”

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    None of this is encouraging, particularly in light of the now infamous promises by the city that the people of Philadelphia wouldn’t have to foot the bill for the papal visit. That adventure in government opaqueness ended up costing us $8 million, despite the alleged contractual obligations of the World Meeting of Families.

    Hands on the credit card

    Controller Alan Butkovitz, one of the few public officials openly critical of the Nutter administration’s handling of the 2015 papal visit, seems cautiously optimistic after meeting with Convention planners.

    “We will be monitoring the process for any issues that may arise,” Butkovitz added.

    David Thornburgh, CEO for the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia civic advocacy nonprofit organization, did not respond to a request to ask if he has any concerns about the absence of public input regarding the July nominating convention.

    Adams-Sarthou said that because the Host Committee isn’t a taxpayer-funded entity, “hearings on the Host Committee not only [don’t] make sense, it’s not in keeping with Council’s role and obligations as authorized by the City Charter.”

    That is debatable, because Council passed the resolution for the $15 million, and Mayor Michael Nutter signed it into law. If Council authorized what amounts to a subsidy, then it should demand that public and convention officials answer questions from elected representatives and the public.

    [Editor’s note: After publication of this commentary, Anna Adams-Sarthou contacted us with this clarification: “Because the Host Committee is a nonprofit that is funded by sponsors, and not a government entity, we do not have an obligation to make our fundraising numbers known until 60 days after the Convention — at which point our full list of sponsors, contribution amounts, etc., will be filed and made public.]

    After Cleveland pledged its own taxpayer-funded lifeline of $2.5 million, the Republican National Convention Host Committee (also not a “taxpayer-funded organization”) began sharing with the public its fundraising progress last year, and continues to do so. According to Councilman Brian Cummins, Cleveland City Council this month held public hearings that included RNC Host Committee members, as well as details ranging from security and its impact on First Amendment-protected activity, to fundraising progress and procurement matters. Top law enforcement and other public safety officials also took questions from committee members. In fact, all of this occurred after public outcry over the lack of transparency concerning convention preparations.

    What’s left behind

    Just as with Pope Francis’ visit, there are no foreseeable hearings planned for the upcoming Convention. While it’s certainly true that much of it will take place at the Wells Fargo Center deep in South Philly, and not in Center City, where the papal events took place — a point officials here are keen to point out — there are still 23 venues throughout the city that will have federal, state, and local security, and with that, disruptions of day-to-day activity for people who had no opportunity to voice concerns or opposition. And, as with other events of this scale, we can expect aspects of the resulting security apparatus to remain in Philadelphia for years.

    In 2013, a National Lawyers Guild study concluded the following: “Every time an NSSE [National Special Security Event] occurs, it becomes a vehicle for a permanent scaling up of surveillance in the host cities …. In [2012 convention host cities] Tampa and Charlotte, the militarization of police departments through the purchase of new equipment and technology will continue to make an impact on city residents long after the conventions.”

    Cummins rightly believes that local government must be “transparent” and “communicative” to the people it’s supposed to serve. If only Philadelphia were as lucky in this matter. Once again, the people of this city are simply expected to patiently wait and accept whatever we are fed.

    There is a glimmer of sunshine in all of this, however. As part of the $15 million credit line issued by the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development, the Host Committee must begin submitting quarterly fundraising totals to the agency. That reporting — the first real glimpse behind the glossy public relations effort foisted upon us — begins on April 15th, according to president John Grady, a spokesperson for PAID’s private arm, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. According to the agreement, should the DNC need to dip into that $15 million lifeline, the Host Committee is legally obligated to repay the loan. A similar obligation, however, was also supposedly in place for the papal visit.

    Leaving aside the question of whether the citizens of one of America’s most impoverished big cities should even be forced to subsidize this event, Council should at the very least question officials — including Host Committee representatives — during upcoming budget hearings and allow public comment; and local media should be demanding more details about what Philadelphians can expect. After all, DNC and other local officials marketed our city as the birthplace of America’s representative democracy. It’s time to live up to that storied reputation.

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