Councilman Mark Squilla has emerged as one of the more influential of the six new members of City Council — a critical voice during the recent budget battle, and one that helped convince Council to delay the Actual Value Initiative — a controversial property tax reform measure.
“It was a good learning experience,” said the freshman councilman, who represents the city’s 1st Councilmanic District. “We learned how to compromise and come up with different solutions from maybe something the administration thought would work.”
Squilla is a member of what council members jokingly call the “serious six.” The six members who took their seats in January and were immediately swept up in an epic budget battle, the perfect storm of tax reform, education crisis and politics.
Looking back — nearly everyone agrees that the new members rose to the task.
“They’ve earned their title,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones, at the end of Council’s spring session. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
According to Squilla, the group has been energized by a common desire to change the status quo.
“Everybody is really serious about making a difference,” he said. “That energizes some of the other council members that have been there for a long time. We have the willingness to make tough decisions.”
None were as visible at Squilla during the debate, though he downplays his role.
“I didn’t think we were getting all the information that was necessary,” he said. “Once some of the other members started seeing that, they also started saying ‘wait a second.’”
His colleague Councilman David Oh put it this way: “What he did, in an effort, I think, to get more information faster was say, ‘hey look if you don’t get it to us, this is what is going to happen — we’re going to delay it.’”
While Squilla stood squarely in opposition to the mayor’s proposal, and frequently said he thought the move to AVI was premature, comparing it to diving into a pool when you couldn’t see the bottom. His criticism of the administration, Mayor Michael Nutter, in particular was muted — unlike that of some other council members.
“I know that people tried to get a fight between Council and the administration, but even though we disagreed on a lot of things [Council] was still able to work with the administration,” Squilla said, crediting Council President Darrell Clarke with his deft handling of the tensions.
“We’ve always been able to be straightforward with each other,” Nutter said. “He seems to be a guy that wants to get things done. He’s not looking to do something else or anything. He seems like he has principles and things that he cares about.”
Ultimately, Squilla was so persuasive that Council voted to delay AVI for another year.
His philosophy, Squilla said, is one of making things happen.
“My philosophy as a whole is to get things done. I hate when people tell me things can’t be done,” he said. The goal of Council should be ‘let’s get it done.’”
Surprisingly that even applies to AVI — provided it’s done right.
“Let’s get it done,” he said, his voice rising. “We can help the mayor do something that nobody else was able to do, but it speaks well for Council. Let’s get it done. It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s not pass it off because it’s going to make some people mad.”
Squilla, who replaced long-serving Councilman Frank DiCicco, has no prior experience in holding elected office but was, since 2008, president of the Whitman Council, and boasts of two decades of community service on his résumé. When DiCicco announced that he would not be seeking re-election he endorsed Squilla. He also collected Nutter’s endorsement during his bid for Council.
Though AVI is likely to dominate Council’s agenda well into 2013, Squilla hopes to get some things done in his district and to tackle other issues faced by the city — jobs and crime. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is open to suggestions.
“Let’s try some new things, even if they don’t work, we’re trying,” he said.
Squilla also hopes that Council exerts a greater influence over the school district by keeping a firm grip on the purse strings.
“Without education, our city is going to fail. We have to make sure that they’re accountable and the only way we can do that is withhold money,” he said. “We have no other say.”
A graduate of St John Neumann High School and La Salle University, Squilla has been married for 22 years to Brigid, a nurse anesthetist. The councilman’s three daughters and son currently attend high school and college in the Philadelphia area.
He’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I think we have the potential to really move forward,” he said. “The changes we need to make over the next three or four years are very, very important because if we cannot make positive changes — improve our schools, decrease crime — the people who have given the City of Philadelphia a chance will move. This is our time to make it work.”
As the new executive director of the city’s Youth Commission, Jamira Burley hopes to engage both young people and adults in a conversation about the future of Philadelphia’s youth — bridging a generation gap that seems to be growing, to make the city and the lives of its young people better.
“There is no longer a village raising a child. A lot of young people in Philadelphia are raising themselves. Adults nowadays don’t realize the plight of young people,” Burley said. “They think they’re doing enough, but they’re not doing it the right way, so there are no results. There are a lot of genuine adults out there who care about youth but, unfortunately, they don’t know how to engage them.”
Keeping kids engaged is crucial to their success, she said.
“When people realize they’re being heard, they’re more likely to stay engaged,” she said.
Burley refuses to speak in sound bites and says others of her generation won’t be influenced by words — only by actions.
“This generation is not keen on catch phrases. They’re not swayed by words — they’re swayed by actions,” she said, noting that many adults talk but don’t follow through, particularly community leaders.
“They are so content with where they are that they’re afraid to let someone come behind them. Most people need to realize that when you empower a young person it doesn’t take anything from you,” she said. “You have to train the next generation of leaders; otherwise who is going to lead when you’re gone?”
Her advice to adults is “take a step back and listen, and consider how [young persons’] experiences impact the way they view the world.”
Burley started her new job as the executive director of the city’s Youth Commission on May 14.
The 23-year-old has taken all that a rough and tumble city like Philadelphia could throw at her and managed to overcome it.
“She is a role model in her family and throughout the community. I am confident that she will represent the values and priorities of Philadelphia’s young people,” said Mayor Michael Nutter.
The eleventh of 16 siblings, she grew up in Germantown and attended schools all over the city before graduating from Overbrook in 2007. Burley admits that for most of her time in school she was a poor student. Dyslexia made learning to read difficult. In the fourth grade she was reading at a first grade level. And, though he managed to improve, she entered her freshman year of high schools with F’s.
“My mom never went to high school, so sometimes bringing home homework was difficult,” Burley said.
Life at home was difficult.
Her father, who left the city to return to his native Virginia when Burley was a child, was in and out of jail. So was her mother and several of her brothers.
“My earliest memory in childhood was 5 years old, being in a courtroom watching two of my brothers being sentenced for murder. They were 15 and 16 at the time,” she said. “Watching that and my other brothers and both my parents go down that road made me realize in my neighborhood people kill or get killed — and you start to live the lifestyle that is projected in your neighborhood.”
The 2005 killing of another of her brothers forced Burley to re-evaluate some of the choices she’d made. By the time she graduated high school, a rarity in her family, she’d turned her life around.
She credits a string of mentors with helping her.
“At every segment of my life, I’ve come across someone who’s willing to take me under their wing,” she said.
It’s hard to say exactly how they influenced her. Some helped her iron out her reading skills, others assisted with college applications and the paperwork needed to get the $50,000 in scholarships Burley received when she enrolled at Temple University.
Others were just there.
“I started to realize that there was a life different from what I grew up with. There were people who were doing amazing work; people who looked like me — people who came from the same neighborhood I came from. So, for me it was just being exposed to those realities and life outside my zip code, my four block radius,” she said. “When you’re exposed to so much more, the idea of your possibilities and what you can do changes and expands.”
Before her horizons started to expand, she couldn’t see any further than the end of the block. It limited her entire outlook.
“If you’re used to people who only do drugs or get arrested that’s what you think is possible for you,” she said.
It’s a situation faced by many of the city’s 600,000 young people and one Burley hopes to change.
“A lot of it has to do with changing a young person’s perspective,” she said. “If you have a young person who doesn’t think they’re going to live past the age of 25, or much past 21, they don’t care much for the next person’s life. How do you make them think they have a future? That’s the biggest challenge.”
Burley is a perfect example of what can be achieved.
In May, she graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in international business and legal studies.
Already, she’s thinking about going back to school for a degree in public policy.
“I actually want to work developing policy around youth development issues,” she said.
Asked if she’s optimistic about the city’s youth, Burley pauses.
“I’m very optimistic because young people are resilient. They will go through some of the worst experiences that people can go through and can’t even imagine and they are resilient,” she said, adding: “It’s really sad that young people don’t have the luxury of being optimistic … I know what I’ve done.”
The new director comes to the job with the blessing of her predecessor state Representative-elect Jordan Harris.
“I believe Jamira has what it takes,” he said. “With the issues of youth violence, education and unemployment and other facing our city’s young people, the Youth Commission is more important than ever.”
The Youth Commission is a panel of 21 young Philadelphians between the ages of 12 and 23 appointed by the mayor and City Council. There are currently seven vacant seats on the commission so Burley’s immediate task is to try and fill those vacancies. Commissioners offer recommendations and advice to the mayor and City Council on legislation and policies that affect youth and young adults.
Though City Council is recessed for the summer, Councilwoman Cindy Bass was hard at work this week, squeezing meetings with reporters in between sit-downs with Parks Commissioner Susan Slawson and a line of others gathered at the door of her fifth floor office.
“We have a lot to do,” she said. “But, I’m excited about it. I just think that there is a lot more that our city could be.”
Bass replaced former 8th District Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller after Miller’s retirement in January. She was one of six freshmen who have helped radically remake a body that was notoriously similar year after year. Bass is only woman in the “serious six,” as the group of six freshmen has been nicknamed by Majority Leader Curtis Jones. The nickname started as kind of joke but after the spring session — marked by strenuous budget talks — it’s not a joke anymore, he said.
“They’ve earned their title,” Jones said. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
There is a definite bond among the freshman, and a feeling that change is needed.
“The six new freshman have added some energy and life into [council],” Bass said. “We do lunch on a regular basis. We do operate closely together, and I think that goes a long way in getting things done.”
All six were baptized by fire during this year’s budget talks, which was dominated by debate over the city’s eventual move to AVI — Mayor Michael Nutter’s Actual Value Initiative — that will base property taxes on market value rather than the traditional fractional value.
Bass supports the move to AVI.
“It’s something that’s time has come,” she said. “For too long in Philadelphia … who you knew downtown determined whether or not you got a favorable tax rate. It’s been unfair for a long time.”
Debate over the issue splintered Council for months, as members worked to come up with an approach that could garner the nine votes needed to move legislation. Ultimately, AVI was delayed by Council because members were worried that the administration could not provide the data they needed to make a prudent decision.
Council President Darrell Clarke noted at Council’s last session that it was the most difficult budget season he’d seen in his 12 years on Council and quipped that after six months in the trenches, new members could no longer call themselves freshmen.
“You’ll learn that after your first six months you’re no longer a freshman,” he said, going on to praise the group for their contribution to Council’s work, and adding that Council has a whole deserved to be praised. “I just want to say thank you. You guys were awesome.”
Council’s delay of AVI means the issue is not going away any time soon.
But, with a bit of room to breathe, Bass hopes to begin moving forward with plans for her district. Her staff is putting together a report on the district that Bass hopes to use to guide her strategy as she moves forward.
“Our strategy so far has just been to stop the bleeding,” she said. “We do need to have a more strategic approach — so we’re sort of taking a step back now and thinking about things strategically.”
One of her first priorities is to change a perception that shrouded the 8th District under Miller — that its Council representative was inaccessible.
It was a charge that prompted Bass to start a weekly “Coffee with the Councilwoman” meeting that allows her constituents to meet her face to face.
“I hear about everything from drug sales in the neighborhood, a lot of people needing work, and then there are the bigger issues, policy issues from downtown,” she said.
Bass hoped to open a district office — something critics have pointed out she said she’d do but hasn’t — but said her office doesn’t have the money at the moment.
“We don’t have the budget for one and won’t for some time,” she said.
Bass also plans to work on some of the issues she campaigned on — improving business corridors and putting together an educational task force, working to cut crime and bringing jobs to her district.
“There is no shortage of things to be done,” she said.
Hoping to finally end its haggling with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, the firefighter’s union, this week, asked the courts to force the mayor to abide by the city’s latest contract with firefighters.
“We will not wait any more,” said Bill Gault, president of Philadelphia Fire Fighters’ Union, Local 22. “For the past four years, firefighters and paramedics have worked without a raise, risking our lives every day to protect the citizens of Philadelphia.”
Firefighters were awarded a contract on July 2 by a panel of three arbitrators. It granted union members a 9 percent pay raise and protected them from furlough days, while at the same time forcing changes in members’ pension and health care plans.
Under the terms of the agreement, backdated to July 1, 2009, and very similar to a previous agreement, the city would contribute more to member’s health care and benefits, but new hires would be forced into a 401(k) type retirement plan.
Though that ruling was recent, the city and the union have been battling over a contract since 2010, when arbitrators awarded a contract that was also appealed by the city. That award was set aside by the Court of Common Pleas after a judge ordered both sides to return to arbitration.
“They’re going to keep on appealing until they get what they want?” asked attorney Ralph J. Teti, who is representing the union in the case, filed Tuesday in Common Pleas Court. “I don’t think there is any statute … that reads that way. If they want [the law] to read that way, they ought to go visit the legislature. They had their shot at it, now it’s time to enforce the award.”
Nutter declined to comment on the suit, saying that the city’s attorneys were reviewing the court action.
“I don’t know what instigated that, but anybody can file a suit about whatever they want,” he said.
Contracts between the city, police and firefighters are governed by a state law called Act 111. It forbids police and firefighters from striking, and provides arbitration as a way for both sides to reach an agreement.
“We cannot strike,” Gault said. “Instead, we are given the opportunity to turn our issues over to an impartial third party for final and binding arbitration. Then, we live with the results.”
The mayor and firefighters have been at odds almost since the mayor took office in 2008. Members of the police union also received an award from arbitration. It included a provision that allowed the city to furlough police officers for up to 30 days a year. When asked why the administration has fought a settlement with firefighters, Gault said he thought furloughs were the reason.
Because the recent agreement was backdated and ends July 1, 2013, Local 22, which has about 4,000 active and retired members, is due to begin the negotiating process all over again in about six weeks, Gault said.
Ed Williams, Lori Schorr say they are partners with Phila. district – not overseers
Lori Shorr and Ed Williams, the new city and state executive adviser appointees for the Philadelphia School District, don’t want their new roles misinterpreted as the district embarks on yet another search for a superintendent.
In their own words, they are not operatives of the city or the state, setting up offices at 400 N. Broad St. to provide oversight to a district that many, following a summer of turbulence, view as out of control.
“No, my role is anything but that,” said Williams, chuckling, recently following last week’s meeting of the School Reform Commission. “Our roles will crystallize in the coming weeks. But the one thing that is completely understood is that this is partnership and the goal is simple: make sure everything we do is geared toward making the next superintendent’s transition work for the children, teachers and parents of the district. That’s all.”
“I have an excellent working relationship with [Interim Superintendent] Lee Nunery,” Shorr said. “I have been working closely with the district for the last three-and-a-half years. The mayor is very concerned about the state of education in the city. This will be an extension and a convenience in that we can be in more constant communication about what happens in the district in real time. But we’ll be following Leroy’s lead. It’s going to be exciting to just be here for the acting superintendent.”
Both Shorr and Williams are lifelong educators.
Before she became the chief education officer in the mayor’s office at the start of 2008 — where her primary focus is to reduce the high school dropout rate and increase college degree attainment — Shorr spent the previous two years as the vice president of Policy and Planning with the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nationally recognized non-profit that manages millions of dollars in investments from government and industry.
Before this, she was a special assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, reviewing and analyzing initiatives and priorities to ensure that they met established standards.
Before Tomalis appointed him, the semi-retired Williams had previously served as the chief academic officer for the district. He has also served as the deputy associate deputy associate superintendent for the office of schools, where he oversaw the transformation of the district’s then 264 schools into the neighborhood cluster model.
Williams has also served as both a teacher and a principal at the elementary and secondary levels.
Both will be integral in providing information and input room the city and state as the district embarks on yet another national search for the next superintendent, a search of which Mayor Michael Nutter has not provided a timeline.
Nutter said the process would be ramped up once the SRC is fully constituted.
The SRC on Monday moved one step closer to completion when Nutter named arts advocate and novelist Lorene Cary to the SRC. Cary should be swiftly approved, and then the last piece of the SRC should be finalized around Thanksgiving if gubernatorial nominee Pedro Ramos is confirmed by the state Senate.
Nunery has voiced his approval of Shorr and Williams lending a hand and helping the struggling district.
“This is not only my ringing endorsement,” Nunery said, “but I’m excited about having people on my wings talking all the time about how to get things done and working with the great team of people that have. We’ve got some folks here who are incredibly dedicated to their craft. What we need to do now is charge forward.”
Both Williams and Shorr believe that Nunery – as the interim now and, ultimately, if he becomes the superintendent – must be the person to make all the final decisions on everything.
“This is his plan; we’re just here to advise him and support him in the things he wants to do,” Williams said. “So if he gets the job, great. He will have been involved in all of the things we have talked about. It should be an opportunity for Leroy to move the system where he wants to move it, and then I’m going to support him in any way. That’s how I see the role of the advisers.”
Nutter strongly emphasizes nothing has been finalized
In an attempt to “sound the market,” the city will, over the next year or so, take bids for the Philadelphia Gas Works, and then consider the possibility of selling the 175 year old city-owned gas supplier.
“A sale could – I want to emphasize the word could, I want to restate the word could – be a positive for the city,” said Mayor Michael Nutter at a press conference Monday afternoon at city hall.
To move forward, a sale would have to generate between $1.5 and $1.85 billion for the city. The majority would be used to cover PGW’s liabilities – approximately $1 billion in debt and about $500 million in other liabilities.
Nutter and his budget director outlined a number benefits to a potential sale.
Perhaps most importantly for residents, the sale could lower rates for PGW customers.
“A private buyer was not likely to need a rate increase as soon as a city-owned PGW,” said budget director Rebecca Rhynhart. “And, probably the level of service would be maintained.”
Gas rates in Philadelphia have historically been high.
“The typical resident in Philadelphia pays significantly more for gas service than other customers in Pennsylvania,” Nutter said. “PGW has the unenviable distinction of generally leading the list of the highest cost of service in the state.”
City officials have debated the possibility of selling the gas works for decades, but in July 2010 the Nutter administration decided to take a concrete look at its options and retained financial advisors Lazard Freres & Co. to study the matter.
Nutter made the announcement on the same day that the city received a report from Lazard, which recommended that the city explore the possibility of selling the gas company.
In its market assessment, which cost $200,000, Lazard approached six possible buyers, all of whom would operate the company, not merely acquire it as an investment opportunity. They concluded that the changes of the city generating a profit were good.
“The ... value achieved in a strategic sale may well exceed the city’s estimate of its PGW-related liabilities,” said the report. “The proceeds from the divestiture could enable the city to exit its PGW ownership and operating requirements at little or not cost (and potentially at a profit).”
The mayor said the process, if the city finds the market favorable for a sale, could take as long as two years to complete. By his estimate, the city could retain a marketing firm within the next few months, accept possible bids for six months to a year after that. The approval of the Public Utilities Commission could take another year.
Nutter stressed the fact that the city was not rushing to sell PGW, saying that the administration would only approve a sale that included a number of conditions.
“We will only enter into any binding agreement to sell PGW after a formal bargaining process and only if the sale offer sees the value of PGW to the city,” he said.
Among the administration’s conditions: a rate freeze until 2016, any purchaser would be required to honor all existing employee contracts – which run until May 2015; that any buyer would guarantee that the company would maintain a headquarters in Philadelphia for at least three years, and retain a certain number of employees at that location.
The mayor declined to say what the minimum numbers set by the city might be.
“We’re not going to negotiate in public,” he said.
Any sale would also need the approval of city council.
Rhynhart said the sale could produce several benefits for the city.
A sale would remove what has often been a liability for the city general fund. In 2000, the city had to loan PGW $45 million, which it only recently repaid. In addition, the city has received only one scheduled annual payment of $18 million that it was supposed to be getting since 2004. That payment came last year, and is expected again this year due to an improvement in PGW’s finances.
In addition to removing financial obligations, the sale would generate property tax revenue. Since the gas company is city owned, its properties are tax-exempt - that would change after a sale.
Rhynhart said that trade-off could prove a benefit to the city.
“All of those factors need to be taken into consideration,” she said.
Founded in 1836, PGW is the largest and one of only four municipally owned gas companies among the 30 largest cities in the United States. It serves more than 514,000 customers.
Mayor Michael Nutter and officials with the Department of Housing and Urban Development are expected to sign an agreement this week keeping the Philadelphia Housing Authority under federal control for the near future.
“For a variety of reasons PHA, HUD and the Nutter administration believe that we should continue in the same mode for some period of time to come,” said Mark McDonald, Nutter’s spokesman, citing the fact that PHA remains at the center of several ongoing investigations, and legislation regarding its governance remains pending in Harrisburg. “There are a variety of investigations and studies being done by the federal government, and consequently, this isn’t the moment.”
Nutter is expected to sign the agreement Wednesday.
Unlike the previous agreement, which placed PHA under the authority of a federal receiver and ceded authority to HUD for a year, the new agreement is expected to allow HUD to remain in control for a period of months.
McDonald was unsure how long.
Director Michael Kelly said the agency is on firm footing and should revert to local control “soon.”
The scrutiny generated by Carl Greene’s departure has ultimately strengthened PHA, he said.
“We may be one of the strongest agencies in the whole country right now,” he said. “Because we spent the last year revising our systems and procedures. It’s the kind of improvement most housing authorities don’t think about, because they’re not under the kind of heavy scrutiny that we’ve been put under.”
In the 18 months since Greene’s exit, PHA has created a legal department, eliminating the use of outside attorneys, a practice established by Greene; created an audit department and put in place new procurement and contract rules and procedures.
But, Kelly said he was most proud of the less tangible changes at the agency.
“I feel very strongly about a very profound cultural shift of how people interact with each other around here, interact with clients and interact with our stakeholders,” Kelly said. “I’m most proud of the things you can’t see.”
PHA was placed under Kelly’s authority as federal receiver and a HUD commissioner – one person who replaced the previous board of five local members – last March after the board resigned to facilitate a federal takeover of the scandal plagued agency.
Since the takeover, two commissioners have overseen the agency.
Currently, Karen Newton-Cole, acting chief of human resources at HUD, administers the agency. Prior to her appointment, Deputy Secretary of HUD, Estelle Richman served as commissioner. She resigned in September, after receiving the promotion to deputy secretary.
The takeover was the result of a series of shakeups that started in August 2010 when news broke that Greene, the former director who was fired in September 2010, had been accused of sexual harassment on at least four different occasions, and used PHA money to pay for out of court settlements, all unknown to the board.
The fallout generated by the scandal prompted at least three investigations: by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and HUD - and numerous audits, one of which is expected to be made public next month. Kelly said three investigations remain open.
In addition, it raised questions in Harrisburg and resulted in two bills proposing new governance for the agency.
At the moment, the mayor picks two board members, the city controller selects two and those four choose a fifth member who is required to be PHA resident.
Under one of the proposals, now before the state Senate, the mayor would appoint nine commissioners, three of whom would subject to city council approval. In the second proposal, now in the House, the mayor would appoint five commissioners; city council would choose two and PHA residents elect two.
McDonald said the administration thought it wise to allow PHA to remain under federal control until some of those outstanding issues are resolved.
“While a lot of great things have occurred, you still have outstanding questions,” he said.
Among the things McDonald listed was a significant cultural shift under Kelly’s leadership.
“He has done a good job. There is no longer the kind of fear and worry that existed under the old regime,” said McDonald. “Its just that they’re not to a point where anybody wants to change the current status.”
When 22-year-old Zykia Sanders was shot to death in West Philadelphia last year, she became a victim of the undeclared urban war.
It is a war that has no political goals, seeks no strategic advantages of any kind and pushes no social agenda other than to make life miserable for the families of those unfortunate enough to have become a victim of it.
Recently, after a year in which the city saw 331 homicides, Mayor Michael Nutter said his administration would be announcing new crime fighting strategies to be initiated in 2013.
“What we see now at crime scenes is 20 to 30 shell casings, the number of head shots involved in homicides is up in the 10 percent range, the multiple shell casings number is up pretty significantly as well,” said Nutter in a published report. The mayor noted that a significant aspect of the problem is the issue of firepower — guns with a high rate of fire discharging round after round.
“You will hear from us very soon about additional efforts to deal with this issue from my perspective at the city, the state and the federal level in my capacity as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors,” Nutter said.
Although the specifics of the Nutter administration’s plans haven’t been revealed yet, Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison said the announcement would be coming soon.
“The mayor spoke about the number of shooting incidents in which victims were shot in the head and often shot multiple times,” Gillison said. “Statistically, the number of shootings are down and the number of part one crimes are down — but we did an analysis and saw that more people were being killed as a result of more bullets being fired in these incidents — the number of people shot in the head was up 11 percent. That significantly increases the likelihood that the victim is going to be killed. This shows that firepower needs to be addressed, and we’ve been working on coming up with strategies that can be pursued. Look, Sandy Hook happened — but this administration has been dealing with the problem of gun violence in this city over the last five years we’ve been in office.”
Gillison said that the Philadelphia Police Department would be continuing its efforts of targeting specific neighborhoods throughout the city where incidents of gun violence are highest. Part of that targeting strategy is called GunStat, in which police work with assistant district attorneys to identify the city’s most violent offenders in a specific area, and keep them under close observation.
“If the suspect is arrested, we can request higher bail and stiffer penalties if a firearm is confiscated. We’re going to continue the targeting strategies and other tactics but the mayor has said that he wants more. President Obama has made a commitment to push for stronger gun laws, and I know he would like to announce something in his upcoming State of the Union Address. We’re committed to initiating new strategies in our city.”
In 2012, there were 331 murders in Philadelphia and Zykia Sanders was an innocent bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time on November 17. Her accused killer, Amin Gibbs, 33, of the 6800 block of Dicks Avenue, allegedly shot Sanders outside West Park Apartments on the 4400 block of Holden Street. Investigators knew from the beginning that Sanders was not the intended target. Gibbs, who has a criminal history going back to 1997, has been charged with murder, conspiracy, weapons offenses and related charges. He was arrested less than a week after the killing.
Philadelphia Police Department statistics show that Gibbs is not an anomaly, but part of a consistent dynamic that fuels deadly violence in the city. Sanders was not the intended target when she was killed — and statistically most of the murder victims in Philadelphia are young, Black males who are killed by other young, Black males in the same 18 to 34 age range. Statistics provided by the Philadelphia Police Department show that in 2012 from January to March, 84 percent of all murder offenders had at least one prior arrest before they were arrested for homicide. Twenty-eight of the 42 offenders with prior arrests were arrested for a violent crime before they were arrested for homicide, including juveniles.
“Much of the violence is sparked by arguments over nonsense,” lamented Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. “The slightest thing can end up leading to someone’s death. If two guys get into a fistfight, the loser goes and gets a gun and shoots and kills the winner — so when you win, you lose. That’s the way it is. The most violent district is the 22nd. The 25th would be the second and the 24th is the third. The 12th District is also pretty rough, but the 22nd is where we have most of our problems. Some of these guys are getting out of jail and they return to their neighborhood and try to re-establish themselves. The neighborhood has changed; there are different players and they’re not letting anyone re-establish anything; so you get a shooting.”
The Urban Youth Racing School — the locally-based initiative founded in 1998 by sports marketer Anthony Martin and supported by NASCAR and Sprint — has teamed with the U.S. Navy NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command) to improve the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) levels for urban, college-bound students.
The two parties have created the Urban STEM Academy Center of Excellence, a state-of-the-art building and related programs designed to answer President Barack Obama’s call that America refocus on STEM advancement, especially among high school and college students.
The two entities will hold a joint program presentation in Saturday, September 8 at 11 a.m. at the Marine Barracks and Parade Grounds on Broad Street in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
According to the racing school, the new USA Center for Excellence will engage students in STEM-related careers and pipelines them into college programs for degrees in STEM fields. The center will also collaborate with various government agencies, schools, churches and various groups of other stakeholders in crafting and growing the initiative.
United States Navy NAVSEA Commander Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy will join Integrated Systems Director Jimmy D. Smith in making keynote addresses during the presentation. Mayor Michael Nutter, Congressman Bob Brady and State Senator LeAnna Washington are scheduled to appear.
Coupled with Obama’s recent executive order focusing on education among African-American youth and the fact that only 1.3 percent of high school minority graduates go on to earn STEM-related degrees, the importance of such an initiative is paramount.
Aside from this new initiative, the Urban Youth Racing School offers four other distinct programs: The Build-A-Dream program, which exposes grade-school students to STEM-related programs in an automobile industry setting; Naval Engine Design, geared toward students with an interest in a naval career; Driver Team Development, which serves as the next step for graduates of the Build-A-Dream program, and the advanced, year-long Driver Team Development program, for students who also complete the Build-A-Dream program and show a passion for a career in motor sports.
“When there’s a big job to be done, it’s hard to think of a better partner than the United States Navy. We are very excited to be working with Vice Admiral Kevin McCoy and Integrated Warfare Systems Director Jimmy D. Smith on the Urban STEM Academy initiative,” said Martin, who also serves as executive director of the racing school. “Our missions are so compellingly synergistic. The inner-city youth we have been training and mentoring are precisely the recruits the US Navy needs to step up as current active personnel are concluding their careers in the service.”
Philadelphia and Camden are rolling out a week of events, culminating in two massive fireworks displays over the Delaware River to usher in 2012, the mayors from both cities announced Thursday at City Hall.
“The annual New Year’s Eve fireworks at Penn’s Landing brings residents, visitors and families together from around the region to celebrate the New Year,” said Mayor Michael Nutter, adding that this year, officials with both cities hope to attract visitors to many other attractions.
For the first time Philadelphia will host a celebration called “Philly New Year’s Week” which includes a series of events from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2.
The highlight of the week will come twice, with the big fireworks shows at 6 p.m. and midnight Dec. 31. Both will be choreographed to a soundtrack that viewers will be able to hear at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia and Wiggins Park in Camden. The pyrotechnics will be launched from barges in the middle of the river with clear views from Philadelphia and Camden.
Fireworks will be followed up at 10 a.m. New Year’s Day with Philadelphia’s traditional Mummer’s Day Parade up Broad Street and a competition following the parade at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Only the weather could spoil the fun, noted Meryl Levitz, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism and Marketing Corp. as she gave Nutter a “magic wand” so he could control the weather.
“There is no cost,” she joked. “You can accept it. No one is going to ask questions.”
Celebrations will start long before the fireworks go off and include: the Christmas Light Show at Macy’s in Center City, 1300 Market St., with sounds from the historic Wanamaker Organ through Dec. 31.
The Comcast Holiday Spectacular, at the 57-story Comcast Center, a show set to the music of a 64-piece orchestra and shown on the 2,000-square-foot, 10 million-pixel LED wall in the building’s lobby. Through Jan. 2 at 17th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
The Enchanted Colonial Village Supported at the Please Touch Museum, with a restored Colonial scenes depicting the Bakery, Blacksmith Shop, Toymaker, Tailor Shop, Watchmaker and others, through Jan. 2., 4231 Avenue of the Republic.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s weekly Art After 5 gets festive, with cocktails, upbeat music and plenty of art. Dec. 30, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music during George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, through Dec. 31, Broad and Locust streets.
The Please Touch Museum celebrates 2012 early with Countdown to Noon on Dec. 31. The museum opens at 9 a.m. and holds “Noon Year” party activities with music and confetti. Countdowns take place two times this year at noon and 1 p.m.
Those with early bedtimes can still enjoy an evening New Year’s Eve party at Franklin Square’s Kids’ New Year’s Eve Countdown, with festivities and a 6:00 p.m. “square” drop, topped off with the early fireworks show from Penn’s Landing. Dec. 31, 6th and Race streets.
Winter sports enthusiasts celebrate at the Blue Cross RiverRink’s New Year’s Eve Party on Ice, a family-friendly affair that boasts one of the best views of the city’s breathtaking fireworks displays over the Delaware River. Skaters can catch both of the sparkling shows from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and again from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Dec. 31. Columbus Boulevard and Market Street.
For more information, check the Web at visitphilly.com/newyears.