The Democratic primary race for city controller is a contest between a political insider who wants to keep a watch over government spending and a governmental insider who wants to rid the office of politics.
The latter is Rebecca Rhynhart, 42, the city’s former chief administrative officer who also served as city treasurer and budget director during her nine years in City Hall. She is challenging incumbent Alan Butkovitz in the May 16 primary. Butkovitz, 65, a longtime ward leader in the city’s Northeast section, is seeking a fourth four-year term as the city’s fiscal watchdog.
Republican Mike Tomlinson is running unopposed in his party's primary election. He will face off against the winner of the Democratic primary in November’s general election.
“Residents and businesses deserve elected leaders who are not part of the political establishment, especially with the role of city controller because the city controller is supposed to be the watchdog,” Rhynhart said earlier this month as she stood next to Ed Rendell, former mayor and governor, who endorsed her.
Butkovitz has pushed back by saying that he has “reinvented” the office of city controller by conducting video audits and creating a policy division, among other reforms. He says he stands up to fellow party stalwarts if he finds misspending or misuse of city funds.
“This is not theoretical to me. This is practical. … We have made it our mission to be truth-tellers,” Butkovitz said during a recent meeting with the Inquirer and Daily News editorial board.
The city controller, as defined by the City Charter, is responsible for auditing expenditures of city government.
The job has historically been held by Democratic political insiders, who have exploited their party ties to prevail in often low-turnout off-year elections.
In the last few election cycles, self-described reformers have tried unsuccessfully to unseat incumbents with arguments similar to Rhynhart's — that the incumbent is too tied to the political establishment. Brett Mandel, who has unsuccessfully challenged Butkovitz twice before, said that if all municipal elections were held during presidential election years, outcomes might be different.
“This is what you got,” Mandel said, referring to the sleepy off-year election. “Best way to move hearts and minds … might be to play their game and try to get ward leaders' support.”
Successful ward leaders can marshal significant blocks of voters to follow their recommendations, which in off-year elections can be crucial. Even Rhynhart, who has cast herself as a political outsider, has been going to ward meetings to seek support.
She said she is feeling momentum from people wanting change.
“I can save at least $10 million each year,” she said in an interview last week, referencing fiscal waste she believes can be eliminated by auditing departments annually. Rhynhart has criticized Butkovitz for not auditing city departments and other quasi-government agencies, such as the Parking Authority, annually.
Butkovitz says he conducts annual departmental audits. The most recent departmental audits are of fiscal year 2015, which ended June 30, 2015. Rhynhart has promised to reduce the lag time for those audits. She has also called for increased transparency in data sets on what the city spends money.
Butkovitz says he has saved the city an average of $10 million each year through his fiscal recommendations. Over his 11 years as controller, the city has implemented recommendations that led to $116 million in total savings, he said.
He pointed to a 2016 audit his office conducted on the city's contracting compliance oversight. Auditors found that contractors were overbilling the city by $1.3 million. In 2011, the controller's office identified $7.4 million in excess fees and overcharges made by the Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff's audit is one that Butkovitz brings up often as an example of taking on a tough case and standing up to a fellow elected official, then-Sheriff John Green, in this instance.
But Rhynhart has turned it around to say that Butkovitz released his audit too late — Green had left office. She says the same of Butkovitz's recent audit on the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, which showed that a former chairwoman of the fund who left city government with Mayor Nutter failed to provide documentation for $52,000 in expenses.
“I think he picks his battles very carefully to not upset those in power,” Rhynhart said. Butkovitz said the sheriff's audit took two years to complete and that he received access to the mayor's fund only after Mayor Kenney, Nutter's successor, authorized it.
“I stand up to people … it goes with the territory,” Butkovitz said. “This is a rough-and-tumble business.”
Butkovitz said that, if reelected, he would focus on the improving the city's economic outlook.
“My goal is that the city be on a track to be out of this category of being one of the top poverty cities ... and really be positioned to strategically take advantage of Philadelphia’s unique possibilities to be a job growth center,” he said. “Everything the city does, they do through their budget and they do through money. We analyze the effectiveness of programs."
Butkovitz says Rhynhart would have a conflict auditing the city departments she oversaw as chief administrative officer for Kenney as well as all 42 city departments she allocated money to as budget director in the Nutter administration.
“She’s not in a position to be controller,” Butkovitz said in an interview last week. “We are a check on the finance director, on the treasurer, on the budget director. … She can’t check her own work.”
Rhynhart said that, as budget director, she set spending levels. “I was not managing those departments.
“The departments I oversaw as chief administrative officer represent 4 percent of the city,” she said. “Maybe I can do 96 percent of the job better than him.”