Friday, July 3, 2015

The Carl Greene problem is indicative of a bigger problem with the way the city is run

And that bigger problem is our reliance on independent boards to run public agencies. These boards often aren't truly accountable to anyone, and thus allow elected officials to throw up their hands and say "we can't do anything," says the Daily News in today's editorial:

The Carl Greene problem is indicative of a bigger problem with the way the city is run

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The PHA board
The PHA board LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer

And that bigger problem is our reliance on independent boards to run public agencies. These boards often aren't truly accountable to anyone, and thus allow elected officials to throw up their hands and say "we can't do anything," says the Daily News in today's editorial:

The Carl Greene saga promises to remain riveting for some time, especially as the PHA board and HUD undertake their independent investigations.

But the reality is, Carl Greene is just a sideshow in this circus. The main event is how the structure of the agency contributed to its problems, and that structure begins and ends with its board of commissioners.

The troubles at PHA - including the settlement of three sexual harassment claims, with a fourth pending - without the knowledge of any of the five board members is certainly an indictment of a board that has been insulated from reality, and from the actions of its executive director.

But we shouldn't be shocked or surprised by this board's performance. The PHA's is not that different from boards and commissions around the city overseeing the alphabet soup of government and quasi-governmental agencies. Whatever calls for reform come out of the PHA mess should, in fact, focus squarely on these boards. Like the meltdown of the Board of Revision of Taxes, the outrages of the DRPA board and the failings of the now-defunct Fairmount Park Commission weren't enough evidence that it's time to change things.

What many of these boards share is a tradition of political appointments often divorced from the functions or needs of the agency. Board appointments are made to maintain a political stake in huge piles of public money.

And often, board members represent a patchwork of appointing authorities, as the "men behind the curtain" chart on Page 17 shows. While one result is democratization of boards, another more disturbing result is a convenient arm's length from any kind of accountability. No one has ultimate responsibility. The buck stops nowhere.

And yet, the public money that these boards control is considerable. A great deal of power and influence is in the hands of a few unelected, unaccountable members. Considering how many people serve on multiple boards, it's time to admit: we have an unelected shadow government that wields huge influence over the day-to-day life in the city.

Compounding this problem, the appointing authorities of boards, commissions and authorities, whether it's the governor, the mayor or other elected officials, often have little control over their board members once they're appointed.

So who do we look to for reforming the PHA and its board? The mayor makes two appointments, the controller makes two, and the fifth board member is picked by the other four. But, once picked, PHA board members can't be removed until their terms expire. (That means that we'll never know if Controller Alan Butkovitz would have bothered changing his two board member choices, Debra Brady and Pat Eiding, for missing so many board meetings in the past year - or if he even noticed.)

The city has no control over PHA, and though it's a state-chartered agency, the governor doesn't appoint its board members. PHA's funds come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and, while HUD conducts audits, it says that it doesn't even have an operating budget for PHA.

That means that everyone gets to throw up their hands and say "we can't do anything."

It's a great sleight of hand, but it's clearly time to change it. Maybe it's time for an "alphabet agency" reform commission, to review whether these agencies can still justify their existence, and to suggest ways for more transparency, accountability and expertise in their board structures.

Just don't appoint a board for the job.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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