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Why City Controller Alan Butkovitz just can’t help starting fights

He runs an office that’s basically tasked with telling other departments what they’re doing wrong and how they can do better.

Updated 1:55 p.m.

The long-simmering feud between former Mayor Michael Nutter and City Controller Alan Butkovitz reached another level last month. Butkovitz described former City Representative Desiree Peterkin-Bell’s use of the Mayor’s Fund as a “special slush fund.” Nutter countered with a statement saying Butkovitz “is a sad and sick person.” Peterkin-Bell filed a defamation lawsuit the next week.     

Even for Philadelphia politics, the rhetoric seemed harsh. But given that this involved the City Controller’s Office, was it inevitable?

The position is practically purpose-built for feuding, given the city controller is tasked with examining the practices of other politicians and other city departments — and then telling them what they’re doing wrong and how they can do better.

“It doesn’t make you the most popular person in government,” said former city controller Jonathan Saidel. “But if done correctly you can become one of the most effective people.”

Saidel worked as city controller from 1990 to 2006, under Mayors Wilson Goode, Ed Rendell and John Street. One of his first acts as controller was refusing to sign off on a $400 million bond plan that would have temporarily lifted Philadelphia’s financial burden — at the time, Philly was flirting with bankruptcy — but created a large expense for future taxpayers. The decision didn’t please Goode or many members of City Council. Saidel looks back on it as his proudest moment as controller because it forced Philadelphia to search for longer-term solutions to its cash problem.   

He aggravated plenty of other people over the next 16 years, from the mayors he worked with to the Eagles and Phillies. In the waning days of Veterans Stadium, he pushed for the two teams to pay up skybox revenues they owed the city that dated back to a complicated agreement made in the 1980s.

The city controller is mandated with performing annual audits of some 40 city departments. Other audits and investigations come as the city controller sees fit. Saidel had a 24-hour anonymous hotline where city employees could share tips. Butkovitz has something similar on the controller’s website. Sometimes Council provides ideas.

Unlike other elected officials, the city controller has no power to legislate. So the recommendations are just that. It’s up to the Mayor or Council to put any of the ideas into action.

“The key is even though other elected officials may react by screaming at you, they know you don’t have an axe to grind,” Saidel said. “It’s your responsibility under the city charter to do the proper investigation and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve never had a sitting Mayor or former Mayor come out screaming and hollering at me personally. I don’t know what the real background is as far as the fund. The reaction should’ve been ‘that’s not true.’ I’m going to check our facts and see if the Mayor believed what Butkovitz did was wrong.”

Saidel recalls major disputes with Rendell throughout the years, but they always solved them privately. And when Saidel later ran, unsuccessfully, for lieutenant governor Rendell endorsed him.

Butkovitz’s first two years as city controller were Street’s last two years as Mayor. The relationship didn’t turn as sour as it would with Nutter, but a report on Street’s minority contracting efforts caused friction.

“When we said the city had completely failed in the minority contracting area he didn’t want to talk to me,” Butkovitz said. “His chief of staff, they didn’t make it public, but they made disparaging comments on the inside. It was very clear that we hit a nerve. But as you recall about John Street he often had this demeanor of ‘what, me worry.’”

Butkovitz said one way he attempts to maintain relationships is by highlighting accomplishments for departments, in addition to the negatives. That didn’t happen often with Nutter. Butkovitz said their relationship started crumbling in particular after reports about the school district and L&I, affecting the access he had to various city departments.

“We would start down a path where the departments were working with us and then the draft audit would land on (Nutter spokesperson) Mark McDonald’s desk and everything would change,” Butkovitz said. “They would start stonewalling or spinning or they would count it differently.”  

Nutter characterized Butkovitz as someone more interested in seeking political points than working together. He said his office would learn of most controller reports when they appeared in the media, lessening the possibility they could work together on proposed changes. 

“From my perspective at least,” Nutter said, “(it’s) not the best way to start off a conversation: ‘Let me poke you in the eye and then can we sit down and talk bout whatever I recommended for you?'”

Nutter acknowledged the need for a strong Controller’s Office, but he would like to see some changes. He noted the lack of diversity in the office — the last three controllers have been white men. The city controller has no term limits and can remain in office for as long as he or she is elected.

“When you look at what’s going on today, Katie McGinty potentially being the first female Senator (in Pennsylvania) and Hillary Clinton hopefully the first female president,” Nutter said. “We should be looking at the opportunity for a woman and someone who is younger in their chronological life and political life.”

So far, Butkovitz said, his relationship with Mayor Jim Kenney has been better. Kenney’s administration suggested looking into the Mayor’s Fund finances and accepted recommendations the Controller’s Office made about fire department brownouts.   

But don’t expect the honeymoon phase to last. Audits generally can’t take place until a year after something has happened, meaning Butkovitz can’t look into the inner workings of Kenney’s departments yet. Next year will be a different story.  

“I’m sure that in time,” Butkovitz said, “we will ruffle feathers with Mayor Kenney and the Kenney administration.”

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