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Dan Rackley

Dan Rackley is a US Naval veteran living in Philadelphia and a contributor to "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?"

August 15th, 2011 2:17 PM

Philadelphia Councilman At-Large Bill Green discusses Open Government, Flash Mobs and more

On Thursday August 11th, I had the opportunity to sit down with Philadelphia Councilman At-Large Bill Green.  Bill is a Democrat that has held his City Council seat since first being elected in 2007 and hopes to get re-elected.  He has been an extremely vocal figure in Philadelphia politics and has introduced several pieces of legislation that he states he will hope change Philadelphia for the better.  I spoke with him at great length about the recent flash mob attacks, the cell phone ban, budget issues with the school district, the benefits of open data government and whether or not he will run for mayor in 2015.

Daniel Rackley:  Today I am here with Philadelphia City Councilman At-Large Bill Green.  Bill myself and my readers would like to thank you very much for taking time out of your schedule to speak with me today.

Councilman Green:  My pleasure.

Daniel Rackley:  First question.  In an article you wrote for you stated that you were a big proponent of a more open data system of city government; i.e. making more city records available more freely through online sources.  You said in the article that the city is ready to spend roughly 120 million dollars on making something like this a reality.  And you’ve also stated over time it would save the city money it desperately needs.  Now, although this is an idea that has a very great deal of merit, how do you justify Philadelphia spending that amount of money amidst all the budget problems it is currently facing?

Councilman Green:  I’d never propose anything that didn’t have a very positive return on investment and a payback over several years.  It’s my view that the city can save 200 million dollars a year once this is fully implemented.  Which it would probably take four to five years to implement.  The actual implementation costs would be more the hundred and twenty we already budgeted, probably a couple hundred million and I’d say we would receive our money back; First of all this is a capital expenditure not one out of the operating budget so we would save operating expenses of 200 million and have an increase in interest payments of roughly ten million a year.  So it’s a significant savings for taxpayers and hopefully would allow us to eliminate business taxes over time so we can be competitive with the suburbs in the region for job creation and business retention.

Daniel Rackley:  Wonderful.

Councilman Green:  I mean the other thing about that is also that an entirely paperless system where people are required to submit everything electronically has tremendous savings within the city government itself.  And I think working with our unions  we can find a way to reduce the personnel level in the city through attrition only and not through layoffs, and lower the overall operating of the city going forward for a long time.  For example, the City of Philadelphia has about eleven city employees for every for every thousand residents.  The average for cities is around seven or eight per thousand residents.  The only city that is near our range in number of city employees thousand residents is Chicago; another sort of big traditional political machine city.

Daniel Rackley:  Now to follow up on that the system you were proposing I have personally seen in Veteran’s Administration hospitals where they have recently changed to an all electronic system in handling records and it’s greatly increased the speed in which veterans are treated.

Councilman Green: Generally speaking productivity should increase tremendously around twenty or thirty percent for your workforce.  You can accomplish things more quickly, the information is at any persons fingertips instantly.  It provides tremendous efficiency and productivity gains and you can use those productivity gains to serve more people better.  It’s not just about saving money.

Daniel Rackley:  Now I know this next question concerns a subject that’s very near to your heart and mine as well.  You were the father for lack of a better term of the bill banning cell phone use while driving in Philadelphia. As I stated in an Op/Ed piece in the Philadelphia  Daily News, I don’t think that this is a law that’s being enforced to its full potential.  I’ve spoken to several members of law enforcement and several regular citizens that share the same sentiments.  What would you say to the law enforcement community and citizens that feel like their hands are tied when it comes to actually enforcing the law?

Councilman Green:  You’re correct.  They don’t have ticket books issued to every police officer on the street.  I mean I drive into town often and see police officers in cars on their cell phones driving around.  I’ve seen people in city cars, whether it’s Water Department  or people from other agencies talking on their cell phones.  It is against the law in Philadelphia and vigorous enforcement will make the city safer.  It also will increase traffic flow because people aren’t distracted looking down at red lights, stopping too long at stop signs; etc.  So it helps people move around the city quicker and actually reduces congestion.  And in fact, that’s where the idea for the bill came from.  We were looking to decrease congestion in Center City and that involved looking at on street parking .  Perhaps changing the rates so people wouldn’t keep driving around blocks looking for an empty spot and decide it was worth it to go into a lot to begin with.  Also we looked at the impact of people on phones not paying attention at stop lights and other things; people having to blow horns to move traffic.  And then it was only after that we looked at the safety factor associated with that we should do it both for congestion and safety.

Daniel Rackley:  Absolutely.  Because I have seen in other states where cell phone bans and texting bans where the auto incidents among people ages 18-25 went down drastically.

Councilman Green:  Texting I think about ten years ago there were 700 million texts.  Last year there were about 7 billion and its projected to go to 24 billion in a few years.  You know, it’s just not a safe thing to do while you’re driving; because you got to look at your phone.

Daniel Rackley:  Aside from that, do you think Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Ramsey are doing all they can to make sure this law isn’t just a ceremonial gesture?

Councilman Green:  No.  Every police officer needs to be trained to issue these tickets and have the authority to issue these tickets.  And ticket books ought to be available to every officer on the street.

Daniel Rackley:  Absolutely.  Now I have a couple of questions about the flash mobs because this has been the biggest story in the city for the past couple of weeks.  With the rapid and discreet ways that flash mobs can be formed through social media; how would you propose trying to curb this violence that seems to drop out of thin air aside from issuing fines and jail time?

Councilman Green:  There’s an underlying reason that I’m not sure that we know what is that this sort of activity goes on.  If you look at the activity in London recently; there’s just a huge sense of frustration and powerlessness by young people.  They don’t see themselves having opportunities if they do finish high school, not having an ability to go to college, not having a chance of living the American Dream.  And as a consequence, they can probably see that frustration in their parents.  The economy is bad, their parents are probably struggling to put food on the table.  And when there’s stress in the home like that it boils over.  The kids feel it and they can’t really react there.  So they go out and react.  We have to address the underlying issues that sort of lead to this kind of behavior.  It’s far more effective to address that than simply throw them in jail.  Now, if they do it we need to throw them in jail.  But in terms of education, the number one thing we need to do in the City of Philadelphia is fix our educational system.  Have it work for kids and families.  To provide them with the kind of education which may make them believe that they someday can have the American Dream.  Until we do that; we’re going to have real issues in attracting new citizens and keeping our businesses.  And in sort of putting an end to a frustration that exists as people know they are sending their children, and the children know because they hear people talk about it.  That they are going to a very poor performing neighborhood school and they don’t have a shot.

Daniel Rackley:  And I will be asking you some more questions about the school system shortly.  Now, the other day when Mayor Nutter gave what could basically be described as a “good stern talking to” to the youth of Philadelphia; do you think that made a real lasting impact to shock the youth into saying, “hey what we are doing is wrong and we’d better stop or there will be problems?”

Councilman Green:  No. 

Daniel Rackley:  So you think it is going to come to issuing fines and jail time to them or their parents?

Councilman Green:  I don’t know.  I mean, I’d like to think that raising the issue at that level will cause parents to talk to their children.  Let’s hope that that’s what happened and it’ll stop.  But I think whether it stops for a month or not the underlying problems that cause this sort of behavior haven’t been changed by a speech.  Or by a stern talking to.  That’s where we need to focus as a city. 

Daniel Rackley:  It’s very well known that your family has a very rich history in Philadelphia politics.  What qualities of your father do you think helped shaped you as a politician the most?

Councilman Green:  (laughs) You know, I couldn’t begin to answer that question.  Every relationship between a father and son is complex and not usually understood by the people in it.  So I’m not going to try to enter into that analysis.  But I have tremendous respect for what my father did as mayor.  I think he’s the mayor that had the most impact on the City of Philadelphia over the last forty years.  When Ed Rendell became mayor after eight years of Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell said in his inaugural speech, “I am going to finish what Bill Green started.”  So my father took over at a time which was far more perilous for the city than even exists today.  Interest rates were fifteen percent, the city had a hundred and sixty million dollar deficit in one year in 1980 dollars.  Which is far bigger than the deficits we have today.  And we talk about five year plans that get into the billions; so if you multiply that deficit by five years you’re looking at an 800 million dollar in 1980 dollars problem.  He ended his four years as mayor with a surplus in the hundreds of millions.  And he did that by taking action, not by giving speeches.  And that is sort of where I come from.  I want to do things, not just talk about them.  My great frustration is a lack of action on critical issues, wasting precious time talking.  We know what we have to do.  The reason we don’t do it is because it’s hard; not easy.  And we need to start doing the hard things.

Daniel Rackley:  In light of the debt ceiling fiasco that happened with the federal government; what ways do you think the debt ceiling crisis could have been handled better?

Councilman Green:  (laughs)  What’s really disappointing I think to most Americans, is that they can fight about it all they want in Washington.  But we should not have aired our dirty laundry in public for the whole world to see.  We knew we had to solve this problem.  Everybody said we were going to solve this problem.  And they could have debated the policy “ should we raise taxes” or “should we cut the cost of size of government?”  Those debates should happen about policy.  But the pettiness, the “don’t call my bluff” stuff on The President’s side.  The Republicans got very nasty as well.  There was no reason for the world to see that.  I just think we should change the way we debate.  In Philadelphia, we have tremendous policy differences often between the Administration and City Council.  We had it with respect to the soda tax, we had it in respect to increasing real estate taxes the second year Mayor Nutter was in office by nineteen percent and fourteen percent.  We’ve had it in respect to funding the school district.  And I could go on and on.  We don’t ever have a personal discussion about this stuff.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t take sometimes what people say personally.  But we don’t air that in public.  I don’t think we’ve ever had a serious policy discussion where we didn’t just debate the policy.  I think that’s fundamentally a poisonous atmosphere and makes it very hard to compromise when you’ve been calling each other names for months instead of focusing on the policy and winning the policy debate.  People are trying to win the thirty second sound bite and get on the evening news.  That’s the problem.

Daniel Rackley:  One question that may be a sensitive subject among some of your other City Council colleagues is concerning DROP.  If the DROP program isn’t done away with in the city, do you think that officials that retire to collect a DROP payment should stay retired and not return to work after retiring for one day? 

Councilman Green:  Well, the good news is that my first day in City Council I introduced a bill to eliminate DROP for elected officials.  Interestingly, the Mayor did not support that measure and help me get that passed.  I also talked to State Senators and State Reps about it and got the bill passed at the state level because we could not accomplish it here without the Mayor’s support.  We then passed a law in City Council consistent with the state law eliminating DROP for elected officials; a bill I introduced.  And so, that’s not going to happen in the future.  Because elected officials will not be able to take DROP.  DROP is an emotional issue with the public.  To me it’s a question of dollars and cents.  City Council passed a bill essentially eliminating all costs associated with DROP on a going forward basis; the mayor vetoed it.  The cost of that veto to the citizens is five million dollars a year out of the general fund.  Which is five million we don’t have available to other stuff.  And he vetoed on a hope and a prayer that he can get to nine votes on his agenda.  Frankly, I think that’s extraordinary unlikely.  We’ll see what happens but I may give the mayor the opportunity to try to get those nine votes by voting to sustain his veto and so it would not be overridden and give him more time to see where he can go.

Daniel Rackley:  Excellent.  As I said earlier I’m going to ask a couple of questions about the school board.  You’ve been quite vocal in other media concerning wasteful spending.

Councilman Green:  Yeah.

Daniel Rackley:  Some of these questions are going to be about something that’s either been vilified or praised in the media in Philadelphia, Dr. Arlene Ackerman. 

Councilman Green:  (laughs)

Daniel Rackley:  How do you think she can justify having a base salary that is almost rival to that of the President of the United States; while a system she is in charge of had to essentially come hat in hand to City Hall and hold up City Council for money for her budget under threat of things like school not starting on time in the fall?

Councilman Green:  Well, I don’t blame Arlene Ackerman for her salary.  She negotiated with the School Reform Commission and they gave it to her.  The people who gave her that salary are the ones that should be held accountable if we feel that salary is inappropriate.  I believe it’s inappropriate; it’s more than the head of the New York City school system.  But that was a decision made by the SRC.  And in any negotiation an individual is going to try to do the best they can for themselves.  And that’s on the SRC, they never should have agreed to anything like that.  Even if that meant not getting the person the really had their heart set on; which was Dr. Ackerman.  So I don’t know how else to answer that question.  I think it’s too much money, but I think that Dr. Ackerman negotiated for it and people gave it to her.  And we need to look at the SRC for that.

Daniel Rackley:  I’d say that’s a fair answer to the question.  Another on the subject of Arlene Ackerman.  How do you think she can justify laying off the number of teachers that she did after the past school year; especially ones with more seniority and keeping others solely because they were employed at her “pet projects” such as the promise academies?

Councilman Green:  You know, that I think that decision is in court and will be resolved by the courts soon.  Obviously she thought she had the authority to do that and if you read the contract of the teacher’s union she probably doesn’t have the authority to do that.  That’s going to be decided by the courts and I’m not going to try to justify it or not justify it.  We’ll know whether it was permissible in just a few short days.  I think the broader issue with the schools is if we could step back from the personality of Dr. Ackerman.  Because that’s kind of a distraction at this point.  There is an SRC, they’re running the schools.  Dr. Ackerman is who they hired.   The question is what we need to do to the schools to change outcomes for kids so there’s not a frustration that leads to flash mobs in the City of Philadelphia.  And we have more than fifty five percent of our kids graduating high school.  And more importantly, we have that high school diploma be worth something.  Because you actually come out with the ability to read, write and get along in society.  Which going to a hundred percent graduation and having a diploma be sort of a meaningless piece of paper is not helpful.  And we wrote a fifty five page education policy paper about a year and a half ago with thirty specific recommendations for the things the school district could do to try to improve.  I still think there’s a lot of things in that paper they could implement today to make a difference for kids.  We’re in the process of rewriting it looking for new research and we’ll probably come out of it with something new in the fall that given current management and operations in the school district I would say would be far more radical than the initial paper was.  I’m beginning to reach the conclusion that the school district is not capable of doing the job that they are mandated to do.  I’m sure I know what the solution to that problem is.  Although I’m beginning to identify that as the problem.

Daniel Rackley:  Now I believe it was in an interview with Fox 29, you stated that there was about three million dollars in wasteful spending from the school district purchasing more books than what were needed for summer school students.

Councilman Green:  Well, basically they made the decision when they knew they were going to have a 600 million dollar problem; they made the decision to purchase books from a vendor that was providing books for the Summer Slam Program.  As if forty thousand students were going to be there.  So basically they were operating as if they were going to be able to come to city government, ask for money; but not have us influence where they spend the money.  And they were making spending decisions like that, that caused a great deal of waste because the Summer Slam Program is a lot smaller.  We didn’t just write the big check that they wanted.  We forced to make hard decisions, and in fact; the SRC has agreed with what really was a Council recommendation for the school district to not open new Promise Academies.  The school district was going to open eleven and that was their plan after they left Council, but once the state didn’t come through with the money that’s really where they(the SRC) went there and eliminated Promise Academies for eight schools that were otherwise going to get it.  And  in city government, we’ve benefited for as long as it’s existed really;  on the influence of various stakeholders in the budget process.  So the mayor proposes a budget to Council, and the council has to hold hearings on it; debate it and choose different spending priorities.  I mean, your budget basically is a statement that you think everything you are doing in that budget is more important than everything you didn’t do.  And city council often says, “No, that is not more important than this.”  Planting six thousand trees a year is not more important than full day kindergarten for example.  So like, we have that debate and we change priorities based on City Council’s then consensus of what is the most important thing to do with those dollars.  Budgeting is choosing for competing ideas for good with limited resources.  And you have to rank them and you have to choose.  The school district is not used to doing that.  And they are not used to having outside people tell having any say whatsoever in what they do or how they operate; or having a different view of what’s important.  And that was evident from the testimony of the school district when Dr. Ackerman said to us, “I’m an educator, not a politician.”  As if we’re proposing ideas that are stupid just because we a politicians.  We have the controller weighing in on our budgets, City Council weighing in on our budgets.  We have the Administration and we also have public testimony that before we make our decisions.  The school district isn’t used to that open transparent process and I think it was very painful for them to have to go through it.  I felt like there were a lot of gritted teeth among school district officials sitting there in City Council having to be polite.  And I don’t think there’s going to be another school district budget meeting where’s a lot of City Council involvement.

Daniel Rackley:  I’m going to be blunt on this one.  If you had the singular authority would you remove Dr. Ackerman from her position?

Councilman Green:  Since I don’t have the singular authority and since I don’t answer hypothetical questions, I won’t.(laughs)

Daniel Rackley:  Ok, fair enough. 

Councilman Green:  But if I had the singular authority, I would make a decision.(laughs)

Daniel Rackley:  Ok.  I was looking for a politician’s answer and I suppose I got one.

Councilman Green: (laughs)

Daniel Rackley:  Now, with this being an election year in Philly with you being up for election with Mayor Nutter; do you see any of the changes that have taken place in Washington with the GOP gaining control in the House of Representatives trickling down to you or your other Democratic colleagues.

Councilman Green:  No, not at all.

Daniel Rackley:  Couple more questions.  One being, what’s the number one reason why the people of Philadelphia should vote for Bill Green this November?

Councilman Green:  I am extraordinarily hard working, I care about and love this city.  I am pushing us to act and not talk.  I’ve been a consistent, thoughtful voice on City Council.  And it’s hard to answer that in one question.  I’ll rephrase your question.  Do we all agree on what the city’s challenges are and how to fix it?  And basically in my view the city of Philadelphia is a train heading into a wall.  And the train is speeding down, heading into that wall.  All we have done for the past three and a half years and for many years before that  is make marginal and incremental changes.  To the city, to the government, to some program; e.t.c.  All it does is move the wall back a little bit.  But that train is still going to hit the wall and when it does, we’re going to be a city that has more people taking resources from government than giving resources in terms of taxpayers and other things.  And we can’t afford to let that happen, we’re at a tipping point in our city and we need to start acting in a way that’s risky.  In a sense, doing the same thing and tinkering at the margins every year isn’t going to work.  We need to expand rapidly what we see working and we need to shut down what isn’t.  That’s what I said when I gave my speech announcing my election campaign and it’s still what we have to do.  We have to do something radical and quickly with the schools.  Radical is a bad word.  We have to do something very different to let businesses know we want them to stay her and come here.  We have to completely change our tax structure.  To me, the two most important things we can do to create and retain jobs in the City of Philadelphia have to do with schools and taxes.  And changing our tax structure significantly and focusing on our schools.  Then a lot of the other stuff will begin to take care of itself.  We have to shrink the cost and size of government; begin to provide the same services for less money.  I’ve outlined a plan to do that with respect to going paperless; saving two hundred million dollars a year and having those resources available for tax reduction and other things.  And so, to try to answer your question; I have a vision for the future of the city that I think Philadelphians share.  It’s basically a thriving successful city right in between the world’s recognized financial headquarters and the world’s recognized political capital; New York and Washington D.C.  It has great schools that provides a free quality public education to every citizen there.  It has low tax rates, it has a growing population and we keep our citizens when their children turn five rather than have them move to the suburbs.  And we grow over time to become two million citizens again.  That’s going to take a lot of hard work.  It’s not going to take speeches, but action.  And I am one of the few people that proposes action.  That writes down plans and will fight to get it done.

Daniel Rackley:  One last question.  In 2015 are you going to run for mayor?

Councilman Green:  (laughs)

Daniel Rackley:  Or have you even made that decision yet?

Councilman Green:  The moment you declare yourself as a candidate for mayor you have to resign from City Council or any other city post.  And so the answer to your question is; I fully intend to explore that opportunity and I fully expect that I will run.  But I have made no final determination as of yet.

Daniel Rackley:  Well I guess we’ll leave it at that then.  This has been an interview with Philadelphia City Councilman At-Large Bill Green.

Councilman Green:  Thank you Daniel.

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