By Sue Ann Rybak
Seven candidates for the 8th District Council seat debated issues such as priorities, gun violence, term limits, economic development, the DROP program and the recent scuttling of a charter school proposal at Martin Luther King High School at a forum April 27 at the First Presbyterian Church in Germantown.
The debate was sponsored by WHYY/Newsworks, the Committee of 70, G-Town Radio, the league of Women Voters and Germantown Community Connection.
All seven Democratic candidates – Cindy Bass, Bill Durham, Andrew Lofton, Greg Paulmier, Robin Tasco, Howard Treatman and Verna Tyner – attended the debate. Most of the questions from the debate – asked by WHYY’s Chris Satullo – were derived from WHYY-sponsored voter forums held throughout the 8th District.
Priorities and Communication
Candidates were asked how they would differ from the incumbent councilwoman, Donna Reed Miller, on the issues of communication with the public, transparency and accountability to residents. All the candidates stated they would open an office in the 8th District with hours that are convenient to constituents.
Early on, Satullo asked the candidates to address the quality of life in Northwest Philadelphia.
“The Northwest has experienced in recent years a worrisome exodus of middle class – as a councilperson what are the three most important issues you would work on to halt that exodus?” he asked.
Tyner said she would focus on education and economic development. Treatman said he would “create a better life” by focusing on education and the economy. He said he would be an advocate for the public school district and would also address public safety and the tax climate in Philadelphia – the two major reasons the middle class leaves the city.
Tasco said she would improve the quality of life in the 8th District by focusing on improving the economy, education, technology and creating green jobs. Greg Paulmier said he would focus on the economy by generating jobs and revenue to fix the problems in the 8th District.
Lofton said that the quality education is important to the family structure. He said he would focus on having good schools, economic development and rejuvenating the historic district. William Durham said he would focus on issues such as public safety, education and bringing resources back to the 8th District.
Cindy Bass said it was important to address the perception of crime. She would focus on maintaining a skilled workforce, decreasing crime and retaining people in the city.
Candidates were asked to address the controversy at Martin Luther King High School involving what many believe is political arm-twisting regarding Foundations Charter School. The controversy began after a charter school company approved by the King School Advisory Committee endorsed by the School Reform Commission suddenly pulled out and parents were told that it had been replaced by Foundations, a company with ties to State Senator Dwight Evans.
It was then revealed that a closed door meeting with Evans and school officials took place just before the change was announced. Parents were outraged and Foundations retreated, leaving a lot of planning in ruins and the Mayor calling for an investigation of the whole mess. The charter school contract for five years was reportedly worth $50 million.
“Should politicians stay out of issues of direct school management?” Satullo asked. “And what is the way you would engage productively?”
“The incident at the Martin Luther King really illustrates the problem with the lack of transparency with large government contracts in the 8th District,” Treatman said. “The idea of politicians’ deals on the side is really an indication of what is wrong with the political culture.”
Durham also was critical of what appeared to be a back-room deal.
“The councilperson should be making sure that the community gets what they desire for their kids because that process is out of control,” Durham said.
“Their plan overrode what the community decided was best for their school,” Tasco said.
Paulmier stressed the fact that the community’s wishes should have been carried out.
“Students, parents and faculty need to be involved in the process,” he said.
Bass said she supported the Mayor’s call for an investigation and said it was important to find what the facts are and hold people accountable. She added that transparency was critical and that everyone should have a voice in the process.
Lofton agreed and said he would support an investigation. He added that one of the problems in our schools is that students are ill prepared to go to college. Students need to have the skills necessary to succeed, he said.
“First, we have to get a fix on what is going on in our schools,” Lofton said, noting that the community had decided what they thought was best for their school.
“A group of people got in a room and decided that the community does not deserve that the main thing we should be focused on is education, Tyner said. “Politicians should not dictate how the schools should be run. If we were doing our jobs we wouldn’t have to have an investigation because we would be already on top of it.“
Returning Control to the City
In a follow up, candidates were asked if they favored bringing the Philadelphia school district under the full control of the city. The state set up the School Reform Commission, which now manages the district.
Bass, Durham, Paulmier, Tasco and Treatman said they would like to return full control to the city. Verna Tyner said she would with conditions. Lofton also said he would with conditions.
“The first thing we need to do is fix the city situation,” Lofton said.
“We need to get control over what we have right now,” Tyner said. “No matter who has control, the bottom line is education. We need to make sure we are ready and able to take back control of our young people.”
Bass was eager to work on getting the schools back.
“Harrisburg has had every opportunity to help us fix our schools,” Bass said “But they don’t give us the support we need here in the city.”
“We have a problem,” Treatman said, referring to massive education cuts proposed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett “We need to take back control without losing that funding. We do not have a friendly state in control of our schools. They are not looking out for the interest of our kids.”
“The bottom line is we should bring schools back under our realm,” Tasco said.
Durham said he supported returning control to the city.
“When you have a for-profit running our schools, their focus in going to be making a profit not on the students,” he said.
Development and corruption
Concerns were brought up at the debate regarding government-supported development being planned out of public view and in ways that smack of favoritism and insider deals. Candidates were asked how they would address development in the district.
“It will not happen on my watch – development is key, “ Bass said. “It is critical that community is involved,”
Durham said that in this neighborhood, there was always the perception that a deal was going down.
“As a councilperson, I would go along with the community wishes,” he said. “They know exactly what they need, exactly what they want and what makes them happy as citizens in this district.”
Lofton said he would appoint a community council. Development proposals would come before the council for the community to decide whether or not they wanted a specific development, he said.
“The community must be involved in any community involvement,” Paulmier said. “If the community decides what should be there, then the chances that it will succeed our much greater. We should be the first ones to be talked to.”
What is most important is that we involve our city planning office,” Tyner said. “We don’t always have to be reactive and wait till something comes up and slaps us in the face.”
“This idea of elected officials working with a developer on the side is everything that’s wrong with the 8th District, “ Treatman said. “We had the same situation happen with Germantown Settlement, where the money disappeared, and the same thing with New Media Technology Charter School.”
Tasco agreed with Treatman.
A stand on DROP?
One of the most raucous moments in the debate was the result of questions concerning the DROP program, which has allowed members of government, including members of City Council, to retire, collect hundreds of thousands in lump sum payments before returning to work. Some of those “retirements” have lasted a day.
“Would you pledge not to vote for council president for any member who has taken a DROP payment or plans to take a DROP payment?” Satullo asked.
Everyone except Bass said they would not support a member who has taken a DROP payment.
Bass said DROP was never intended for elected officials. She said she would not make any commitment to any official.
“The important thing is that we don’t limit our options for the 8th District. I want to make sure I have all the resources available to be of service to the 8th District,” Bass said.
“There are some things that are just black and white, and taking $500,000 and retiring for a day and then coming back and being Council President just isn’t right,” he said. “A person who does that is not qualified to be Council President.”
The Philadelphia Primary is on Tuesday, May 17.