The Sin of Silence

Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer alerted us two weeks ago to an abomination in process. One of Philadelphia's true development success stories has a good chance of being derailed because of a recalcitrant politician. 

In brief, developers U3 Ventures and the Thylan Group consulted early and often with neighborhood groups regarding a development project at 43rd and Baltimore Avenue. This process resulted in an outstanding design that actually excited neighbors (a stark contrast to the usual complaints about lack of consultation, concerns about the impact of development on a neighborhood, etc). According to Saffron, the City Planning Commission also applauded the design. 

So we have a fairy tale complete with a happily ever after ending, right? Not so fast. In order for the development to proceed, the zoning for the block needs to change. Because of Philadelphia's arcane, unwritten rules, that requires the support of local City Councilwoman, Jannie Blackwell. To date, she has refused to support the change. 

Now I'm tempted to skewer Blackwell for this opposition/inaction. After all, I can't think of a single good reason to oppose/derail this development. But I'll refrain because we have no idea what Blackwell's thoughts on the project are.

Instead, I'll skewer her for refusing to explain why she has not acted on the request for a zoning change. Blackwell's refusal to comment/return calls when contacted both by Saffron, and subsequently by a reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian represents an utter abdication of duty. She owes it to her constituents to explain her thinking if she is going to derail what looks like it would be a positive development for the neighborhood. 

If she continues to refuse to do so, the local media needs to continue to draw attention to her behavior, and a concerted campaign needs to begin (led by media voices like the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board, as well as community groups) to encourage voters to remove Blackwell from office. One cannot credibly claim to represent people when she will not explain her rationale for seemingly opposing the wishes of her constituents. 

I've written a fair amount about what I wish the media would refrain from doing in terms of "holding politicians accountable (see yesterday's blog)." But this is the perfect case for investigative journalism and the media watchdog function.

If Blackwell won't answer questions, then it is incumbent on the local press to investigate why she is standing in the way of this development. Sadly, constituents are not likely to get an answer from the Councilwoman without media intervention that forces her hand. 

Maybe her opposition is legitimate. I might not agree with her judgment, but we don't elect our representatives with the expectation that they will agree with us 100% of the time. But it is also possible that her refusal to explain her thinking is indicative of something far more nefarious, and that is why the press cannot let this story rest. Doing so, would send the wrong message to developers, neighborhood groups, and politicians throughout the city. 

Blackwell's behavior is nothing new from members of Philadelphia's City Council, who often take advantage of a lack of scrutiny to play favorites, make demands, and run their districts as fiefdoms. But it cannot continue to be acceptable. 

If we want a city propelled by forward thinking development and planning, we must reward U3 Ventures, the Thylan Group, and the neighborhood groups that participated in this process. We must let politicians know that encouraging and taking part in such efforts will be met with praise, and attempting to derail them will draw scorn, skepticism, and electoral defeats.