Eric is a general assignment reporter for The Philadelphia Tribune
Business association urges advertisers to be ‘influencers’ for diversity
The African-American Chamber of Commerce is calling on advertisers to support it in its effort to open up the staff of Philadelphia Magazine and make it more diverse.
Exactly what that support would be remains unclear – it could mean a boycott, or it could mean advertisers using their influence to sway magazine management’s hiring practices, said the chamber’s executive director, Shalimar Blakely.
“I think the African-American community should absolutely assert our power as consumers and ask businesses that we patronize to support our efforts. Again, this does not necessarily mean a boycott, it could very well be asking influencers who can pick up the phone and talk to leaders at Philadelphia Magazine about doing the right thing,” she said. “It’s saying to businesses we patronize: ‘Hey, we support you, now we need you to support us.’”
The call for action was the latest in the snowballing public reaction to a piece on race that the magazine published earlier this month. The article, titled “Being White in Philly” by Robert Huber, was based on a series of anecdotes, from anonymous sources – all of them white – outlining their views on the city’s Black population. It caused an immediate outcry from people Black and white; everyone from writers on the magazine’s staff to members of City Council.
Since publication, magazine officials have admitted that there are no Black staffers at the magazine.
Blakely said that was unacceptable.
“It’s important that the African-American Chamber of Commerce … holds businesses accountable and ensure that their workforce is reflective of the demographics where they operate,” she said.
Magazine editor Tom McGrath said he was meeting with chamber officials on Thursday. He did not comment beyond that.
Blakely said she was “hopeful” about the meeting.
If, 30 days after the meeting, the magazine had not taken steps to diversify its staff, the chamber would call on advertisers for their support, she said.
She did not expect the specifics to be worked out until after next week’s meeting. Blakely said she had no hard numbers in mind other than the 30-day deadline.
“I’m not interested in a quota,” she said. “I’m only interested in providing an economic opportunity for African-American journalists who are skilled and able to perform the job.”
Chamber officials will also follow up to make sure the magazine does what needs to be done.
“It is unacceptable for an organization to say they are committed to diversity, without providing clear metrics to measure that commitment,” said Blakely.
The outcry over the story has resulted in several public meetings and a call for hearings from Mayor Michael Nutter and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Nutter even raised the possibility of the public censure for the magazine saying the article was like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
In addition, McGrath and Huber have been forced to publicly explain the rationale for the story.
On Monday, the two men appeared at a public meeting at the National Constitution Center to discuss the piece. On Tuesday, both men met with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and on Wednesday an event was held in John F. Kennedy Plaza – Love Park – to introduce Black and white Philadelphians to each other.
The controversy surrounding Philadelphia Magazine’s article titled “Being White in Philadelphia,” published in this month’s edition, seems to have taken on a life of its own – with business officials now weighing on the importance of formal hearings to take a look at race and inequality in Philadelphia.
“We endorse a formal request for a broad inquiry by the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission on matters of race and socioeconomic inequalities,” wrote members of the executive committee of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, in a statement released Thursday, which echoed the sentiments of Mayor Michael Nutter and others.
At least six members of the 23-member committee are Black.
“Our commitment to principles of diversity and inclusion is what has heightened our concern with recent media stories, protests and public allegations without evidence that result in a distorted and shallow view of certain minority-led and minority serving organizations, as well as socioeconomic and racial relations in the City of Philadelphia,” officials wrote in the statement. “While we recognize the rights to freedom of speech of all, we abhor written and spoken commentary that is divisive and that lacks appropriate balance. This is especially concerning when the authors and publishers of such commentary and reports fail to identify or make available their source documents so that those impacted can appropriately respond.”
The group’s statement comes a week after Mayor Michael Nutter denounced the article in a letter to the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission and asked that it hold hearings on the magazine’s decision to publish the piece.
Nutter condemned the article, written by Robert Huber, as the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater.
“The First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right,” wrote the mayor. “A publisher has a duty to exercise its role in a responsible way.
He then asked the commission to hold formal hearings and to determine if Philadelphia Magazine deserved public censure for the article.
“I ask that the Commission consider specifically whether Philadelphia Magazine and the writer Bob Huber are appropriate for a rebuke by the Commission,” wrote Nutter, in a letter sent to PHRC director Rue Landau on March 15.
The commission has not yet responded to Nutter’s specific request for hearings but did, this week, invite Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath to attend its next public meeting “to objectively address the allegations of racial disharmony raised in … [the] article.”
That meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. April 18 in the Fairmount/Brewerytown neighborhood. Commission officials have not yet determined the exact location.
“It is the PRHC’s hope that this public meeting will provide an opportunity for members of the community, and the greater public, to express their actual feelings and opinions in a more productive and civilized manner,” said Landau, in a letter to McGrath.
McGrath said the magazine would issue a written response to Laudau’s letter. He did not provide it by Tribune press time on Thursday.
The outcry over the story has resulted in several other public events. On Monday, McGrath and Huber appeared at a public meeting at the National Constitution Center to discuss the piece. On Tuesday, both men met with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and on Wednesday an event was held in John F. Kennedy Plaza – Love Park – to introduce Black and white Philadelphians to each other. All were spawned by the story.
Among the reasons the piece evoked such emotion was the fact that was based on a series of anecdotes, from anonymous sources – all of them white – outlining their views on the city’s Black population. It caused an immediate outcry from people Black and white; everyone from writers on the magazine’s staff to members of city council.
A bill banning guns in city parks and recreation centers - even by individuals who are licensed by the state to carry a weapon -- was approved on Thursday by city council.
“The goal of this bill is common sense. We just don’t want guns on city property,” said its sponsor Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “We don’t allow guns in [city hall] and the goal is protection; if it’s good enough to protect us, why wouldn’t we extend that to all of our citizens?”
The measure was approved with a 15-2 vote. Councilmen David Oh and Dennis O’Brien voted against the bill.
“I don’t believe we have the legal authority, and I have my doubts about its constitutionality,” Oh said.
Guns are regulated by state law and even Bass admitted that the bill could face court challenges.
“We’re sure that there are going to be some challenges, but we need to proceed,” she said, adding that the idea was to regulate behavior not guns.
Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to sign the bill into law.
Earlier in its meeting, council honored state Attorney General Kathleen Kane for finally closing a loophole in state law that allowed Pennsylvania residents who were prohibited from getting a license to carry a gun to get a license from Florida.
City officials led the charge to close the loophole Gov. Tom Corbett, when he served as state attorney general refused to take action. Kane did so earlier this year.
Also, members of city council continue to express doubts about the accuracy of new property assessments done as part of the move to AVI. One member, Kenyatta Johnson, even called for slowing down implementation of the new property tax system.
“People are concerned, confused, angry and affronted about AVI,” he said, noting that at a recent community meeting about AVI, 90 percent of the people he spoke to said their assessments were incorrect. “The assessments which we have been reviewing from block to block, from house to house seem like they are all over the place.”
To shore up public confidence in the process, he recommended that the city “slow down.”
“Some are of the belief that we should forge ahead,” he said. “I, and some of my colleagues, are of the belief that we should slow down and do what’s right, do what’s fair and do what makes sense.”
He endorsed a proposal by Councilman Mark Squilla that would let taxpayers pay in installments to “gradually absorb the increases in their tax bill.”
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. also expressed concerns with the process and has urged the administration to extend the time that residents are allowed appeal their assessments.
He wants residents to have 45 days beyond the March 30 deadline to appeal.
“Residents should have proper time to seek relief and appeal those assessments and given proper consideration,” he said.
Jones said he sent a letter to Nutter last week asking for the extension but has not yet gotten a response.
In other news, council passed a resolution urging Philadelphia’s state legislators to vote against a proposal by Gov. Tom Corbett that would allow the state privatize liquor stores.
“The state store system is an asset that currently generates more than $500 million annually, providing a steady and increasing source of revenue to the state treasury,” said Councilwoman Marian Tasco, as she asked her colleagues to support the resolution.
Her opposition to the idea was also based on the harm she felt it would do to Philadelphia.
“[It] may also have a significant and detrimental impact on the City of Philadelphia through the proliferation of numerous additional alcohol establishments throughout the city … causing a negative impact on public health and safety of Philadelphia and its citizens.”
The state legislature is expected to vote on the privatization proposal on Friday.
Finally, Jones introduced a bill that would ban employers from checking employees’ credit records. The bill was referred to committee.
City Council is pressing administration officials to explain Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to spend $40 million to beef up collection of delinquent property taxes, a move administration officials said would generate about $260 million.
Nearly everyone agrees that more needs to be done -- the disagreement comes over how to do it and what it should yield.
“It’s an issue when you talk about investing without including the return on the investment,” said Council President Darrell Clarke. “Given the challenges associated with the Revenue Department, we need some sense that we will collect additional revenue.”
Clarke was noting that the mayor’s new budget did not include any additional revenue from higher collections. There are an estimated 103,000 delinquent properties in the city with a total past due amount of about $515 million.
Council met Tuesday afternoon as a committee of the whole at a hearing on a combination of six revenue bills and resolutions intended to bolster delinquent property tax collections and review the system that is now in place.
The Nutter administration has recently come under fire for what critics contend are lax collections.
“Under this current administration, we have been more lax than the two previous administrations in regard to the collection of taxes,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, also questioning the need for more investment. “Can you give me some clarity on what you think may be the gaps in our collecting delinquent taxes?”
It was an assertion denied by Revenue Commissioner Keith Richardson.
“The two previous administrations have not done better than we have done,” Richardson said. “Those administrations had better economic times.”
He added that collections were up $33 million from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012.
The commissioner linked real estate tax collections to real estate sales. All taxes are collected when a property is sold - so during better economic times when properties are selling, collections are better. He noted that hardships and bankruptcies are up since 2008.
“Economic times have changed dramatically,” said Richardson.
Criticism over delinquent taxes has increased as the city moves toward AVI – the Actual Value Initiative. It is a shift that has pushed property taxes up for many residents and left many taxpayers pressuring their council members to make sure the city collects all it is due.
“Last night, I took an AVI butt whooping,” said Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. “You haven’t taken a butt whooping until you’ve taken an AVI butt whooping. One of the questions was ‘how are we going to collect what we are already owed?’”
Already the administration has taken steps to clamp down on delinquent owners, Richardson said, citing as an example the fact that L&I officials now check for delinquent taxes before issuing licenses or permits.
“They make sure that business gets a tax clearance to prove to you that they are in compliance,” Richardson said. “This is something that has not been done before.”
He also outlined some of the measures the administration plans to boost property tax collections with the additional $40 million. The majority of the investment will pay for a new computer system that will help the city track delinquent taxes, determine which taxpayers to pursue the most aggressively and combine records from across city departments.
Many of council’s questions highlighted members’ frustrations with the delinquent taxpayers.
Several pressed Richardson to lay out a standard timeline between the time a bill is counted as late and the time it is sold to cover the taxes.
He said the city’s timeline was unique to each case.
“The carrot has to be predictable as well as the stick,” Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez. “Unless there is date certain, nothing is going to happen. They know they have lot of time before we catch up to them. There is a lot of discretion in collections.”
Shouting their opposition to the U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan and urging Congress to raise the minimum wage, protesters vented their anger at the nation’s Republican leaders on Monday at the Union League.
Their specific target was U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The Senate minority leader was in town making at least one private appearance.
“We don’t think he’s on the right side of the budget,” said Jess Burgan, assistant director of Fight for Philly. “We want him to vote against the Ryan budget.”
She was referring to a spending plan unveiled to the public last week by Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and former vice presidential candidate.
It resembles his previous budget proposals, relying on higher tax revenues enacted in January and improved Medicare cost estimates – along with somewhat sharper spending cuts – to balance spending with tax cuts. Among its key provisions, a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, cuts to domestic programs ranging from Medicaid to college grants and another that would require future Medicare patients to bear more of the program’s cost.
Ryan was expected to formally introduce his proposal to the senate budget committee on Tuesday.
Marvin Robinson of West Philadelphia said he joined the protest because he wanted to “hold legislators responsible.”
“They need to make the economy smoother for all people,” he said.
Robinson was one of about a dozen protesters who picketed on the sidewalk in front of the imposing red brick and brownstone façade of the Union League.
The group chanted slogans like: “Hey, hey, ho, ho Mitch McConnell’s got to go” and “Mitch McConnell you can’t hide. We can see your greedy side.”
Though McConnell was not seen anywhere near the club’s main entrance on South Broad Street, a security guard, who asked not to be named, verified that the senate minority leader was indeed inside.
Earlier in the day he visited Comcast. The purpose of his visit was not clear – though it was likely a fundraising junket. A club staffer, who also asked not to be named, said all club events were private and would not say whether McConnell had a speaking engagement at the Union League.
“We didn’t expect to catch him,” said Burgan.
There were hints of unusual activity at the club, one of the city’s costliest, which also has entrances on Sansom and 15th streets. Sansom Street was lined with black SUVs and vehicles from the sheriff’s department.
None of the people exiting the club by the Broad Street entrance would speak to the Tribune.
Despite the small turnout, protesters represented three groups: Fight for Philly, Action United and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 33.
In addition to their concerns about Ryan’s budget proposal, Burgan said the group wanted to see the minimum wage raised.
“He thinks that’s an awful idea,” said Burgan.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, to $9 in stages by the end of 2015. After that his proposal would allow automatic increases to keep pace with inflation.