Upping his game as second-half whistle blows

Mayor Nutter signs Sharif Amir's T-shirt after painting a Bronx school hallway yesterday. He was making good on a bet with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the Phillies' Series lost to the Yankees.

Mayor Nutter swept into office buoyed by voters' high hopes and great expectations.

But almost two years into his term, the mayor has lost some of his mojo. His administration doesn't seem to be firing on all cylinders.

The issues plaguing the mayor are more squishy than concrete, and may come with the territory of pushing for change within an entrenched and often dysfunctional City Hall.

Many are surprised at Nutter's rocky relationship with his former colleagues on City Council. Some say the mayor lacks a strong No. 2 person who he trusts and can speak for him. Instead, they say Nutter is surrounded by policy wonks good at PowerPoint presentations but short on bare-knuckled politics.

On the surface, things may appear to be in order but behind the scenes the wheels of government are often stalled.

To be sure, the Great Recession overwhelmed even the best laid plans. As a result, Nutter has spent much of the first half of his term mired in budget issues largely not of his making.

On that score, Nutter did a good job of closing a huge budget gap. But he missed a brilliant opportunity to combine his popularity and the crisis to implement major reforms that better position Philadelphia for the future.

Instead of a sweeping overhaul, Nutter got bogged down in petty spats. He burned up time and political capital trying to save a couple million dollars by closing a handful of library branches. He was forced to eventually back down.

But the fight left him wounded, and he appeared afraid to push for the broader cuts and efficiencies needed at City Hall.

Instead of the "reform mayor" that many voted for, Nutter has been more of a pro forma mayor.

Rather than attack waste and shrink the bureaucracy, Nutter's first budget boosted spending. Once the economy sank, he suspended the tiny tax cuts, and then proposed raising property taxes in a city that already has the highest tax burden around.

Nutter was forced to postpone the property-tax hikes, in part, after a series in The Inquirer detailed how the Board of Revision of Taxes was riddled with patronage and incompetence.

The mayor then decided to raise the sales tax, but he needed the legislature's approval, which left him at the mercy of a dysfunctional Harrisburg locked in its own budget battle.

Unfortunately for Nutter, the budget meltdown overshadowed many of his accomplishments.

For starters, he hired a superb police commissioner in Charles H. Ramsey. Crime was the top issue in the mayoral election. City streets seemed out of control. The previous commissioner had no plan and had given up.

Under Ramsey, the murder rate has dropped. A sense of safety has been restored in most neighborhoods, and the Police Department seems in good hands.

Public safety is a huge part of running any big city. And with the police Nutter followed a lesson plan that in other cases he seems to have abandoned: Hire first-rate managers and let them lead.

Nutter has also instilled more ethics and honesty to a City Hall that had become tarnished by pay-to-play. In Philadelphia, that's a sea change.

Nutter has also worked to bridge the divide with the surrounding suburbs in an effort to make the region think as one.

He has embraced a vision to transform the waterfront along the Delaware River, and he's done more than any mayor to make it a reality by transforming the city's waterfront agency under progressive new leadership.

Nutter has also demonstrated strong leadership and public relations skills. For better or worse, that's a big part of being mayor, and an area of the job that his predecessor, John F. Street, often ignored.

When a crisis erupts, Nutter appears cool under fire and says the right things. But sometimes he is short on the delivery.

During the budget crisis, the mayor called for Council members to give up their government-issued cars. Great sound bite. Never happened.

Nutter got similar results when he called for the BRT board to resign in the wake of The Inquirer series. The BRTboard members basically told him to get lost.

Nutter has tried to reform the BRT, but that process has been slow and even ran afoul of the law. His city solicitor found the BRT violated the state Sunshine Act by voting in secret to turn over its property-assessment function to the mayor.

Despite the violation, neither the BRT or Nutter has taken any steps to go back and comply with the law. For a mayor who promised an open and transparent government, that has been disappointing.Nutter also flip-flopped on gambling. He first opposed plans to build two slots parlors on the waterfront, but now supports the effort.

The next big test for Nutter will be the city worker contracts. The mayor has said the city can't afford pay hikes and needs to rein in soaring pension and health-care costs, which threaten to undermine the budget.

On this front, he must stand and deliver. The stakes are too high for the mayor, and more importantly, for city taxpayers.

The union contracts cut to the heart of the tension that seems to have confounded Nutter. As a councilman, he operated largely outside of the Democratic Party machine. Nutter was elected on a populist agenda that called for sweeping reforms at City Hall. That's what many of the 1.4 million residents still want.

But public employees and others who feed off the government don't want change and stand in the way of real reform. Nutter has to decide if he wants to govern for the insiders who drive the party machine or the broad majority of taxpayers who elected him and want to see the city prosper and grow.

There's time for Nutter to regain his momentum and implement the change the city needs. To do so, he should keep in mind that popular rowhouse support got him elected mayor more than entrenched party bureaucracy.