The first word City Council President Darrell Clarke uses to describe Matthew Stitt, Council’s new Chief Financial Officer, is “unflappable.”
“Matt is a pretty even-keeled kind of guy,” Clarke continues, adding that’s one of the reasons he enjoys working with him. Stitt’s colleagues and his family often describe him the same way: humble, laidback, whip smart and very thoughtful. His uncle, who coached him in basketball and baseball, often explains his nephew’s personality through sports stories, like the game where “he caught that ball, deep centerfield, to win the championship. You would never know by his reaction.”
Clarke clearly sees that as a plus. In early February, he sent out a memo to his staff. Stitt, formerly the deputy chief financial officer of City Council, had been promoted to CFO at the tender age of 28.
When I meet Stitt, I find him unusually composed. Every now and again a laugh or turn of phrase affirms that he has more than cool notes to his demeanor, but overall, his manner of speaking is pleasant but precise. He is that way when he’s speaking about policy. He is that way when he’s speaking about his anthropology degree from Haverford. He is that way when he’s speaking about his abiding love for Philadelphia. He is that way when he explains that his mother had him at 17, when she was a senior in high school, and that his family banded together to nurture him and ensure his success. Perhaps, I wonder, he’s collected himself well before speaking with a reporter.
No, that’s how he is.
What exactly does City Council’s CFO… do?
The CFO of Philadelphia and the City Council CFO are two distinctly different jobs. A municipality’s CFO works for the executive branch and keeps the city in compliance. Traditionally, it’s been a position with heavy accounting and even settling debts, but as a recent Governing feature attests, it is steadily growing in responsibility, expanding to include strategic planning.
The top fiscal officer of a city’s legislative branch is essentially an analyst who works for council members, the fiscal data researcher behind a councilperson’s bills. “He brings the numbers that gets you to the substantive debate around policy,” says Seventh District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez. “It’s good to have him in the room.” He’s also council’s independent expert when numbers arrive from the mayor’s office.
In 2013, the city’s overhauled real estate tax system showed troubling inconsistencies in property assessments across the city. “[The Nutter administration] was deflecting concentration onto what taxes would be in a certain area and not giving us proof that the assessments are actually accurate, First District Councilman Mark Squilla told AxisPhilly back then. “When you do your own analysis of your own work, your numbers tend to be better. It’s scary to think that in their own analysis they have areas that are 25 percent off.”
Stitt was assistant chief financial officer officer then. “We had to produce a 2-inch binder of analysis,” he says, adding that they brought Econsult Solutions in for extra hands.
Calling the top job a CFO appears unique to Philly; Justin Marlowe, who teaches financial management at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, has not seen another city use that designation.
But “we do things a little differently,” says Clarke. The title, the council president says, is a sign of a broader scope.
The City Council CFO guides the budget hearing process, providing council members with information along the way. “We help shape the mayor’s budget,” Clarke says, referring to council’s power to amend the mayor’s budget as they see fit. “Our CFO has to be more diverse.”
“He spends a lot of time with individual council members to understand what their issues are,” says At-large Councilwoman Helen Gym, who is working with him on an intergovernmental agreement with the school district. In addition to requested analyses, Stitt also monitors city departments for the council.
A son of Mount Airy
When most Philadelphians discuss Mount Airy’s diversity, the conversation focuses on race, and understandably so. The neighborhood is regularly cited as one of the first racially integrated communities in the United States. Mount Airy is also home to diverse housing stock, though, a characteristic of much of the Northwest. Manors and rowhomes, apartment complexes and twins, the varied architectural landscape allows for a mix of incomes across neighbors that’s more nuanced than the area’s middle class reputation. Mount Airy’s neighborhood schools have long been overwhelmingly black. Even at C.W. Henry, located in Mount Airy’s most well-off section, 73 percent of students are African-American and 73 percent qualify for free lunches.
Matthew grew up near to the borders between East Mount Airy, Cedarbrook and West Oak Lane. While his mother had put him in fantastic schools, his friend group reflected a range of educational experiences.
“During my high school years, I made a lot of friends with kids who went to public school and played in public schools, and kids who played in Catholic schools,” he says. Something as simple as discussing campus amenities would reveal “the drastic differences between opportunity.”
“Just seeing the gap in education in the city, that’s what first drew me to public policy,” Stitt says.
He’s very aware of the statistics: That 46 percent of a black, single mother households live in poverty. That’s another thing that attracts him to policy— making a difference for families like theirs.
Ignoring the statistics
The name she gave at the clinic was Maria. When they called for her, Mary Stitt forgot that briefly. The friend who tagged along for moral support had to remind her: She was up. Mary went on back. “The doctor came in and he showed the results, and I said, ‘Okay, alright.’”
She was pregnant.
She held it together until she got in the car, where she cried. Her friend consoled her; they went to get cookies for levity’s sake. She tried to put on a brave face, but after she got home, the tears came back.
She spent maybe two days crying, mostly holed up in her room. She was so unlike herself that her mother correctly guessed what had happened. And so her mother told her: “Mary, you’re going to be fine. You’ll graduate. You’re going to go to college or you’re going to start working. Whatever you planned to do, you’re going to do, you’ll just have a beautiful little baby with you.”
“And that just set the tone,” Mary Stitt explains.
“I don’t want to want to glamorize this. It’s very busy. And certainly when I had Matt, thank God I had my mom. My mom has always made it that I never regret the decision to have him and that my self esteem and confidence was always high. Because the outside noise is rough,” says Mary. “I had a lot of people waiting for me to fail. It’s almost like your punishment. Like you had a baby young so you’re not supposed to do well. You can’t make it. And your kid can’t make it either, which is crazy to me.”
Her Matthew was born the August after she graduated from high school. She enrolled at Temple that January, but didn’t stay long. She transferred to Chestnut Hill College, which was more convenient, close to home, close to family and eventually, close to her son’s elementary school.
Mary arranged her coursework around her mother’s work schedule at first. The idea that any of her children or grandchildren wouldn’t receive the best education available to them seems preposterous to Anita Stitt, who today, long retired at 81, is still witty. She encouraged Mary to do what she had to do. She taught Matthew to be fair but not to take any mess. But Matt was easy, she says, “he’d listen to you.”
Mary is the baby sister of five older brothers; Matthew says all of his uncles “chipped in” in raising him. His uncle James would often pick him up from school, and take him with a car full of cousins to his grandmother’s house, or to practice, where he grew into an impressive athlete.
“They wanted to accuse me of favoritism, but they really couldn’t because he was that good,” says James. For instance, he remembers, Matthew was pitching, and one inning it only took him four pitches to retire the side. “It didn’t faze him at all. I said ‘Matt, do you know what you just did?’”
Mary went on to Villanova Law. She met her husband at Matthew’s karate class. She has now five children. The youngest is 6 years old.
“I’m driven by my children. If slinging newspapers takes care of children, then I will sling newspapers. If being a commissioner or a chief of staff takes care of children, then I’ll be a commissioner or chief of staff.” The latter example was the real life one— she was procurement commissioner and chief of staff to the managing director during the Nutter administration.
‘Treat adversity as a privilege’
In December, Stitt was invited back to Germantown Friends for the 50th anniversary of their community scholarship, which he received. “Those kids that were there, when he finished his speech, they stood up!” his grandmother Anita is proud to note. Among his comments were, “My mom’s strength allowed me to treat adversity as a privilege.”
He puts it another way to me later: “Watching her struggles allowed me to put a perspective on what’s going on and remain calm in pressure situations.”
Clarke says Matt Stitt’s skills and composure “put him at a significant comfort level.”
“When [previous CFO Sade Olanipekun-Lewis] decided to accept a position at the Airport, I felt comfortable. He’d essentially done the work. It was a matter of giving him the title,” says Clarke.
“I don’t think he’s aware of it!!” James Stitt says on the size of his accomplishments. “I don’t think he is.”
“One time,” his uncle adds, “Matt scored a touchdown on an interception, [then] on a run and on a reception. And it was nothing to him. Do you know how rare that is?”
“Matthew does feel it,” his mother pipes up. “He just doesn’t show it as much.”
What did Matthew Stitt do when he found out he would be City Council CFO before age 30? Not much, he says. He shared the news with Mary and his best friends. But that’s kind of it. He was happy, but he hasn’t really celebrated yet.
He explains, “I’ll save that for the summer when the budget’s done.”