AFTER EIGHT YEARS of Michael Nutter, Philadelphia seems to be returning to a strong-mayor form of government.
That's the way it is supposed to be. The mayor as the pre-eminent power in City Hall was an idea written into the City Charter more than 60 years ago. Unlike what is in the U.S. Constitution, the legislative branch and the executive branch were not supposed to be co-equal. The mayor was given the tools to rule.
Unfortunately, as Nutter discovered, you still need to get City Council to provide the votes for your agenda, and he never mastered that trick. As a result, power tilted to Council and to its president, Darrell Clarke. The lowest point came at the end of Nutter's second term, when he failed to get Council to even hold hearings on his plan to sell the Philadelphia Gas Works.
Clearly, that era is over. With Jim Kenney, we have a mayor with the political skills to get what he needs from Council. Yes, it involves horse trading. Yes, it probably involves some arm twisting. Surely, it also involves a willingness to compromise.
But, when it came to his first major initiative as mayor - the sugary-drink tax - Kenney got it done. By the time the shouting stopped and the dust had settled, 13 out of 17 Council members voted for the bill.
Kenney's first deft move was to tie enactment of the tax to a popular program - offering pre-kindergarten to children who need it. Never mentioned by Kenney were the health benefits of getting people to cut down on consumption of high-sugar drinks. Nutter had used that tactic when he proposed his own drink tax. The bill went nowhere.
At first, people opposed the steepness of the tax, which Kenney had put at 3 cents per ounce. The tax ended up at 1.5 cents per ounce. And the measure ended up including a tax on diet sodas, as well - after opponents complained the tax would hit poor people the hardest.
In the final days, when opponents gave up trying to defeat the bill and tried to get a final vote delayed, Kenney started horse trading. He added money for projects favored by Council members - more money for homeless programs, for the African-American Museum, for more Recreation Department workers. These concessions did take money from the pie for pre-K, but it got the bill passed.
In short, the mayor ran a master class in practical politics.
Well before the soda tax, though, Kenney deliberately structured his administration in a way that would ultimately allow him to focus on the big picture, rather than get bogged down in the day-to-day details of running city government.
Nutter, for example, built a structure of many deputy mayors, all of whom reported to him. While Kenney certainly has deputy mayors, he has granted far more power to the city's managing director - a role Kenney calls the city's chief operating officer. That office, headed by Michael DiBerardinis, oversees key city departments, including Parks and Recreation, Health and Human Services, Fire, Police, Licenses and Inspections, Prisons, Criminal Justice, Transportation and Infrastructure, among others. Placing that much responsibility under one director suggests Kenney has a level of trust in his inner circle to make decisions - while the mayor can focus on the kinds of relationships with Council and others that are key to getting big things done. And accomplishing big things is what we need a strong mayor for.