Something Smells Rotten in Philadelphia

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Everybody loves children, or at least they should. And everybody believes in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, or at least they would if society’s values weren’t so out of whack.

I’m sure that’s exactly what was going through the mind of former Gov. Ed Rendell when news broke that the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee he chaired used $1 million of its $4 million of surplus funds to pay out bonuses to staff.

Rendell explained the disbursements as fulfilling a pledge to an underpaid staff that he’d take care of them on the back end. They worked so hard to bring the Democratic National Convention to Philadelphia and were so successful, he reasoned, that they deserved a little extra. After all, the committee raised a hefty $86 million through a combination of private donations and public grants. (And $10 million came from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.)

The problem is, while interns and volunteers got $500 checks and the office manager got $13,357 on top of a $36,000 annual salary, the man at the top, Executive Director Kevin Washo, received a whopping bonus of $310,000.

The party the committee sold may have showcased the best of the City of Brotherly Love, but the optics of the committee’s final official act — detailed in a quietly filed year-end report with the Federal Election Commission — conjures up images of a much seedier Philadelphia.

Let’s not forget that this is the city that made Abscam a household name, whose current district attorney is facing trial on bribery charges and who last year saw a member of its congressional delegation resign before getting hauled off to jail.

That’s why Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, are absolutely correct to be appalled at what can easily appear as a gross mismanagement of funds.

“I am disappointed that when the host committee discovered there was a surplus, the first call was not to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania to discuss returning the money to the taxpayers,” Wolf said in a statement. “The commonwealth supports large events that have an economic benefit to Pennsylvania and the region, but when there is leftover funding, that money should be returned to taxpayers.”

Brady was a bit more colorful when quoted by The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“That’s terrible,” he said of the bonuses. “I should’ve been on that committee.”

Rendell, Washo and Chief Operating Officer Eliza Rose probably all had pure motives when they decided to give a little back to the people who made the convention possible, but they had to be downright foolish if they expected that there wouldn’t be pushback.

For his part, Wolf is incorrect in asserting that the $4 million surplus should have been sent back to Harrisburg; the state’s grant money was apparently spent by the time the surplus, which Rendell has attributed to invoices coming in less than forecast, was discovered.

But the idea that the committee doesn’t owe, at the very least, a bit more accountability than what amounts to “we thought we were doing the right thing” is insulting to Democrats, to Philadelphians and to every taxpayer in the commonwealth.

It is true that a large part of the surplus, $750,000, was also gifted to the School District of Philadelphia. But since part of the committee was publicly funded, the public should have a say in how any leftover cash is disbursed.

In the final analysis, the committee’s decision appears shortsighted and disrespectful of the city and state it was created to serve. At that level, it doesn’t matter how much its staff and volunteers deserved. They all chose to work for the committee. As far as we know, nobody forced them.

Did they do an amazing job? Absolutely! But so do the trash collectors who keep my corner of the city clean. Most people who work for the good of Philadelphia achieve phenomenal things despite having to do progressively more with less. We as a society either can’t or are unwilling to give all of them bonuses. The least that we can do is to give them a voice in the process and to not be dismissive when they question a decision reached behind closed doors by an unelected trio.

Like a rotting onion, the slightest whiff of impropriety can spoil what would otherwise be the enjoyment of an exquisite feast. For all the good Rendell has done for this city, first as mayor and then as governor, it’s a downright shame that he’s allowed the Democratic convention’s success to be tarnished. He of all people should know better.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]