The key to electing an effective Controller – defined as someone who will root out overpayments to service providers and ensure the best possible return on public spending – is to pick the person the city’s power structure doesn’t like. That’s Brett Mandel. The people who are trying to bring down the cost of living in Philadelphia through more housing construction are backing Mandel. The people who want to keep the cost of living too high are backing Alan Butkovitz.
For any city controller in Philadelphia there is a conflict between the ideal job specifications and the political reality of getting yourself elected.
The public would like to see a snarling watchdog keeping a wary eye over city finances, fearlessly attacking mayors, City Council members, bureaucrats, ward leaders, and union bosses whenever they threaten to tax or spend or waste another penny from the public till.
The reality is, the controller – the most powerful city office on the ballot in Tuesday’s sleepy Pennsylvania primary – gets elected every four years in low-turnout Democratic primaries where organizational support from the same assortment of party power brokers can be critical to winning reelection.
That’s both the blessing and the curse that Alan Butkovitz carries as he seeks the Democratic nomination for a third term, against two aggressive challengers – Brett Mandel, 44, a civic activist who worked in the controller’s office under the previous controller, Jonathan Saidel, and Mark Zecca, 60, a recently retired veteran lawyer with the city Law Department.
Both say Butkovitz has been too cozy with the city’s power structure. They say he was either inattentive or ineffective in uncovering and stopping mismanagement at major city-related agencies including the Philadelphia School District, the Sheriff’s Office – two areas that Butkovitz regards as successes – and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, where two Butkovitz appointees presided over the tenure of fired executive director Carl Greene.