HelenGym's blog

Governor weighs in on Ramirez hate crime: Where’s Specter?

Last week, Governor Ed Rendell called upon the Justice Department to pursue federal civil rights charges in the 2008 beating death of Luis Ramirez. His call breaks an oppressive political silence since the murder and the subsequent acquittal of the defendants on all serious charges. In his statement, Rendell said:

"The evidence suggests that Mr. Ramirez was targeted, beaten and killed because he was Mexican," wrote Governor Rendell in the letter. "This beating was so brutal and violent that Mr. Ramirez’s skull was crushed in two different places. This senseless and cowardly attack appears to have been a hate crime as racial slurs were hurled against Mr. Ramirez throughout the fatal assault.

"Such lawlessness and violence hurts not only the direct victim of the attack but also our towns and communities that are torn apart by such bigotry and intolerance. That is why I am pleased that the Department of Justice is presently investigating whether to bring civil rights charges against Piekarsky and Donchak for their role in the fatal beating of Mr. Ramirez. I believe that justice and fairness mandate such a prosecution."

The Inquirer’s editorial board also issued a call for justice in this case, saying it has not been served.

First, many thanks to the Governor and others who are doing their part to stand up on this tragedy. Pennsylvania is fast earning a reputation as an anti-immigrant breeding ground. The political antics of Hazleton embarrassment Lou Barletta (the 2008 PA Mayor of the Year) to media clown Joey Vento have helped put PA on the national radar as a place of anti-immigrant ignorance and hate. And as the injustice of Luis Ramirez’ murder continues to rally people nationwide, it’s more important than ever that politicians in PA be held accountable for condemning rather than ignoring what's happening in our state.

So, ahem, Nation to Arlen Specter: Where are you on this issue?

(Note: A quick phone call to his office revealed that he has made no statements thus far on this case.)

What's goin' on: Casinos, school violence and an update on the Luis Ramirez murder

A round-up of things in my neck o’ the woods:

  1. Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled: The bizarre Foxwoods fiasco remains stalled out, but that didn’t stop the casino from filing for a license extension last week. The petition reads like one long plaintive whine on why their gamble on a downtown casino hasn’t hit the jackpot yet. It also demonstrates how effective Councilman Frank "My Fighting Days are Over" DiCicco and Mayor "No Barriers to Casinos" Nutter were in stalling the project and potentially getting concessions from the casinos – something both have refused to do now that the project is off the waterfront.
  2. Petition to stop predatory gambling practices: Meanwhile, the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition is pushing a petition for City Council which targets predatory gambling practices (sign here). The "No Blank Check For Casinos" Campaign argues that Council has a moral and civic duty to enact basic protections when a slots house is placed next to neighborhoods and homes – things like: making sure casinos close between 2-8 a.m.; prohibiting free unlimited alcohold service, and prohibiting ATM machines and lending on the casino floors. So far DiCicco has argued that such protections are outside his control.

    Ironically, in 2007, DiCicco made sure the City amended its otherwise strict limitations on payday lending to exempt casinos. Seems like it’s not impossible after all for Council to consider citizens’ needs as well as casino needs.

  3. Another out of touch Inky editorial: Over the weekend, the Inquirer published yet another awful editorial on the Philadelphia public schools. It was based on the annual report written by the District’s one-note Safe Schools Advocate, whose apparent sole contribution is an annual doomsday report on school violence. In its editorial "Rotten Apples," the Inquirer stated it’s time to "get rid of persistent troublemakers." Unfortunately, its tough on kids approach offered few options, and the Safe Schools Advocate, as expected, simply pounded on his one issue – noting the fact that schools don’t expel enough kids. That got me thinking about a recent Baltimore Sun story about Baltimore’s "go nuclear" approach: permanent expulsions under zero tolerance. With zero tolerance, there’s hardly any need for due process (parents have 10 days to appeal in writing) and the rotten apples are prohibited from attending any public, charter or disciplinary school, thereby placing the entire burden on the parents to either home-school or pay for private school.

Deal? What deal? But the casino circus still rolls into Council

So, let's recap here:

  • For months, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), chaired by Rendell BFF Ron Rubin, has been claiming that they own the Strawbridge's building which they intend to lease to themselves via Foxwoods casino, whose lead investor is Ron Rubin's "charitable trust."
  • errr . . . they lied. OK they fudged facts since they are actually owners of Strawbridge's Unit A.
  • BUT the bill passed through committee and will be read in Council this morning anyway!

Now for the record, the Councilman promised he wouldn't bring anything to a vote because why would you want to deal with this?

The Strawbridge Building is a commercial condominium. DiCicco is concerned that there is something in the ownership agreement that would prohibit the bottom floors from being used as a casino. He is also worried that Gramercy might take either PREIT or City Council to court if the CED legislation is passed. He also said Gramercy could potentially file a lawsuit alleging that the zoning change lessened the value of its property.

But it begs the question again, what was the Planning Commission doing when it whole-heartedly gave the project its endorsement a few weeks back? or when everyone from the Mayor to the Councilman applauded the move to Strawbridge's?

And while all of city leadership bucks process, it's interesting how one tenant can say the same thing that our city leaders ignored from 1,000 people, 25,000 petitions, and the dozens of groups who are part of the No Casino in the Heart of Our City Coalition - which is that no one, not even the co-owners of a building, really thinks that casinos are a viable form of economic development.

Is the School District getting a free ride on its budget?

(Note: This blog entry was updated to separate the District's operating budget from its capital budget, which is $2B or so dollars over five years)

It's kind of hard to imagine that if someone handed you a thank you card for your $810 million gift of city cash, there wouldn't be a significant amount of public scrutiny over where it's going. But it appears that's what may happen to the School District's FY2010 budget.

The 330-plus page operating budget was just put online last week. The capital budget hasn't even been released for distribution. Then last week City Council announced that it has canceled today's day-long accountability hearing for the School District and will instead condense it into a one-day session tomorrow which includes public testimony. All of which means that this budget - $3.2 billion operating - is not only the largest in recent memory. It could also be the least scrutinized.

I, like many, am encouraged that there are many capable people over at the District. I'm glad that the District isn't engaged in scandals that earned it the kind of headlines it did in 2006 and 2007. I actually even think the District has put out more information about its budget than it has in the past. But having smart people who haven't embarrassed themselves in the paper recently doesn't mean a budget of this size gets a free pass.

PREIT weasels on Foxwoods Casino

So why does it make sense to thoughtfully engage in a planning process, review your data, consult with interested parties, study a project from economic and social angles, and perhaps not jump the gun especially when it's a project that's generated a lot of public controversy, say like a casino?

After all, Foxwoods sailed through the Gaming Control Board and the Philadelphia Planning Commission without a problem. What could possibly go wrong on the city's biggest "done deal"?

Or maybe you do it so you don't look like the bunch of rubber stamps people say you are:

City Leaders: Take the BRT off the School District payroll

With the news that the Mayor and City Council are in a fuddle over what to do with the Bureau of Revision of Taxes, here's one place to start:

TAKE THE BRT EMPLOYEES OFF THE SCHOOL PAYROLL

Why is it relevant to the situation before the city?

  • According to the District's FY10 budget book (p. 332), the BRT expenses have actually increased this year by 17% and will again next year a nominal amount. Their behavior can't be rewarded.
  • The School District houses 80 employees, between a third and 40% of the total number of BRT employees. That's a sizeable figure.
  • Because city ethic laws prohibit political hires, many of the most political people on the BRT land on the school payroll - like ward leader Donna Aument, or "clerks" Helyn Cheeks, David Shadding, and Lorenzo McCray all of whom were mentioned by name in Monday's unbelievable "BRT serves as political jobs bank" story. In fact, according to our studies, at least 40% of School District employees, hold political positions as ward or committee leaders.
  • Putting them back onto the city payroll clears a $4.5 million burden on the schools - AND helps offset the fact that the city is delivering $10 million less in funds to the schools anyway - AND forces the political hires off the BRT payroll or loses them the plum political assignments that appeared to be the primary qualification for "clerkship."

There's no question something needs to be done about this agency - especially and because of the Mayor's proposed property tax hike and the Actual Value Initiative. But calls from one extreme (abolish the BRT!) to another (let's wait!) shouldn't hide the fact that one move could strike a quick blow to the BRT's system of operation.

The BRT: Your government NOT at work

(Read a school-focused take on the BRT at The Public School Notebook's website)

OK I stole that line from Jon Stewart, but what do you say about the Inky’s phenomenal series about the Bureau of Revision of Taxes – the people who’ve been assessing your homes?

What do you say when:

  • The BRT’s Executive Director who took full advantage of the city’s DROP program only to return to work with a pay raise two days later says he has “nothing to do” with property tax assessments;
  • One member of the BRT’s board became president of Citizen’s Alliance, former Sen. Vince Fumo’s non-profit that was at the center of his corruption trial, and is currently being investigated on abuses including unlawfully increasing taxes on a property that the Senator had allegedly wanted to purchase;
  • Agency officials told reporters that a tax assessor, who had reduced an assessment for the BRT board member above, had “died.” She hadn’t and basically told reporters she was encouraged to reduce the taxes on that board member’s property;
  • Private deals on commercial properties abound including a 44% reduction in the assessed value of the Ritz Carlton from $35 million down to $19.5 million.
  • Two members of the BRT’s board say they don’t know anything about the sunshine law or conducting official business in public?

And there are so many amazing quotes here, quotes you can’t quite make-up like:

Catherine Scott, Local 2187 pres., representing some BRT workers: "I don’t think it’s fair to say none of them work. The level of work varies greatly."

Republican leader Michael Meehan on why the BRT is where old Parking Authority employees go: "At a certain age they can’t be out on the street on a cold day and walking. The BRT is a more attractive place."

BRT Executive Director Enrico Foglia on his non-relationship with Dem. Party Chief/U.S. Congressman Robert Brady: "It’s not like we’re old buddies or nothing like that. I wasn’t real tight with Bobby."

Court of Common Pleas Judge William Manfredi on qualifications of BRT board members: "I haven’t the faintest."

Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds a gambling free for all

Breaking news from the AP wire:

Pennsylvania's highest court says a ban on political campaign contributions by casino owners and executives is unconstitutional. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the ban violates the state constitution's guarantee of free speech. . . . The ban was touted as a major bulwark against the political influence that the lucrative gambling industry can exert over policymakers.

The Supreme Court noted in its opinion that the ban on political contributions was overly broad. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ron Castille suggested other alternatives:

"While the ban on political contributions does further the compelling state interest in avoiding the appearance of corruption in the oversight of the gaming industry, Section 1513 is not narrowly tailored," Castille wrote. "A statute that limited the size of contributions, rather than absolutely prohibiting any contributions, would be more narrowly drawn to accomplish the stated goal."

That’s what they did in Maryland, so how’d that turn out?

What happened behind closed doors at the School District?

(Cross-posted at the Notebook's blog)

Anytime the School District has to summon a line-up of politicians to testify on its behalf, you know something’s up.

On Wednesday night, a group of political heavy-hitters opened the School Reform Commission meeting to urge the SRC to vote in favor of the District’s controversial strategic plan – Imagine 2014. Meanwhile CEO Arlene Ackerman issued dramatic statements that emphasized just how much pressure the District was exerting on the SRC for its vote:

"Tonight is the night that we demonstrate to [children] that we care . . . Tonight is the night the School Reform Commission acts on behalf of all of our children," Ackerman said during the meeting, which drew a capacity audience to the District's headquarters on Broad Street near Spring Garden.

And vote they did, 4-0 with hardly a question asked. Not one clarifying remark was made by a single commissioner to explain why each had voted on a plan that had generated lukewarm enthusiasm and enough controversy to result in last-minute plan adjustments, community meetings, a new budget, and political muscling.

Which makes one wonder: what happened behind closed doors to put the muzzle on the SRC?

Election Day is not a school holiday

(Cross-posted at The Notebook's blog)

As a parent, I’ve never been a fan of the policy to close school on election days – a ridiculous practice that has been going on since the Vallas administration.

But the latest news that the City is forcing schools to add two extra days to the school calendar because they want to close schools for the May 19th election has me particularly irritated.

First and foremost, the primary function of schools is schooling. Period. Since when did certain city officials get to determine that 168,000 children should be somewhere else on a perfectly legitimate day during the year for their own convenience?

Second, I think it’s great that most schools are polling places. As a former teacher, it used to be one of my favorite days of the year – a built-in civics lesson on participatory democracy. Classrooms across the city used to engage in mock elections, mock polling, brushing up on elections both big and small. What educator would cede that opportunity with children?

Election day, for most people, is also the only time during the year that they have a chance to step into their neighborhood school. And I, for one, think people ought to see schools living and breathing with the very kids who go there. Erasing the children from the picture removes the very purpose of the essential role schools function in our communities.

Finally, I’m particularly irritated by the claim that city officials want to close schools because they worry about children’s safety. For decades schools have remained open during election day. I’m stunned that these unnamed city officials feel like Election Day has suddenly become a political legacy no matter the cost to hundreds of thousands of children, families and school staff in the region. In addition, it’s not exactly cheap to open 268 school buildings and pay staff to hang around in supposed professional development seminars.

The March snowstorm took us all by surprise, but our kids and parents shouldn’t have to pay for two extra days at the end of the year, when a perfectly valuable educational opportunity awaits us on May 19th.

An ambush at the Gaming hearings

Yesterday more than 70 Philadelphians headed to Harrisburg to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Hearing for what was supposed to be a "status update" on the Philadelphia casinos.

Instead, what many of us were greeted with was essentially an ambush - the announcement that Foxwoods used the status hearing to announce that they planned to move within a matter of months into the Strawbridge's building.

Residents and neighboring businesses have raised concerns over the scaffolding around the historic 8th & Market landmark which has been in place for weeks. After all, it would be highly inappropriate for a gambling establishment to start building out for a casino without first applying to the PGCB (the application process triggers a number of studies as well as some process).

Gillen on lack of casino financing AND a pitch about April 8th casino hearings

Last night at Philly For Change, Jethro Heiko from Casino Free Philadelphia and I made a pitch to Philly progressives about the importance of weighing in on the casino debate. It's not a sideline issue anymore.

"Casino fatigue" may have set in for some local officials but for the rest of us Philadelphians this issue is hotter than ever. With the Mayor reversing a campaign promise, table game legislation live on the House floor, a proposal for video slot machines on every corner, threats about stripping Philly of revenues, and the prospect of a temporary tent on Sugarhouse's waterfront location that looks like this:

Indiana Downs' temporary casino

the casino debate in Philly is far from over.

Recently, Terry Gillen weighed in, in her usual way, on the casinos, telling the Daily Pennsylvanian (my alma mater where I was once an editor) that casinos in Philly are “on hold” while operators work out their financing issues.

School Chair Out? Politics All In for Philly Schools

In a shocking turn of events, both the Inquirer and the Daily News are reporting that School Reform Commission Chair Sandra Dungee Glenn may be off the SRC. Media reports say that she may be replaced by attorney Robert Archie.

A few weeks back, on the Public School Notebook’s blog, I wrote about the baffling secrecy and lack of transparency around choosing the members of the School Reform Commission, the city/state oversight body for the Philadelphia public schools.

In fact, a School Reform Commission appointment is probably one of the least transparent processes in the School District of Philadelphia. Decided upon in backdoor rooms, at the sole discretion of either the Governor or the Mayor, lacking any written set of responsibilities and expectations, and largely absent public standards for avoiding ethical and financial conflicts of interest, the Commission appointments have long baffled most parents and education observers.

Unfortunately, if true, the departure of Sandra Dungee Glenn won't do much to alleviate those concerns. Here are a couple of reasons why:

A seismic shift in school funding

Thanks to the federal stimulus package, the School District of Philadelphia stands to gain more than it has seen in decades.

What that means:

  • The state will stay on a six year track for bringing all districts up to adequacy level spending. Because of the economy, the state had backed down from the funding formula, claiming they would move to a “seven-year” plan.
  • Philly gets $361 million next year, $120 million into the general fund, and the rest?

    Many school officials, including those from Philadelphia, said yesterday they were still analyzing the proposal and could not say much about how they would spend any of the money.

Yikes. Kind of makes the gaps in Imagine 2014 more urgent than ever.

Rendell, gambling, and the politics of fear - Part Deux

And so we’re back here again:

Harrisburg is losing patience. Rendell yesterday said that he was "disappointed" that the city's two casinos are not open. Rendell added that he would have to "weigh very heavily" any legislation proposed to strip Philadelphia of gaming-tax benefits.

Or in case you didn’t hear him clearly enough:

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