A standing-room-only crowd numbering in the hundreds packed the Mayfair Community Center to hear about Jim Kenney’s plans as mayor of Philadelphia. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
School funding, immigration, diversity, drugs, guns, prisons, police deployment, police brutality and absentee landlords were just some of the topics on residents’ minds last Thursday night as Mayor-elect Jim Kenney hosted his third of four town hall meetings around the city.
A standing-room-only crowd numbering in the hundreds packed the Mayfair Community Center to hear about the next mayor’s plans, to air their criticisms and to advise him on how they think the city should be run. Kenney responded to 20 public comments during the hour-long Q&A session, a rapid-fire format not dissimilar to a campaign forum. But instead of trying to win votes, the mayor-elect’s task now is coalition-building behind his progressive agenda.
There were some lighter moments, like when Kenney, a Democrat, assured Republican City Committee Executive Director Joe DeFelice, who is also the Mayfair Community Development Corporation chairman, “I know you didn’t mean anything you said about me during the election.”
The quip drew laughs from the audience, which included City Councilman Bobby Henon, Councilman-elect Al Taubenberger and state Rep. Dwight Evans, who co-chairs Kenney’s transition team and is running for Congress. The room also included numerous civic leaders from the Northeast and neighborhoods beyond. Kenney’s three other town halls last week were in South Philly and Strawberry Mansion, and at Central High. He will be sworn into office on Jan. 4 as the city’s 99th mayor, replacing Michael Nutter.
“I wish I could be mayor-elect forever because everybody’s high-fiving you and taking selfies,” Kenney joked at the outset. “And next year I’ll be ducking.”
He quickly digressed into business.
“This could be a gripe session if that’s the way it goes, but what we really want to do is we want to hear what your vision is, what we should be doing over the next four years to help make your community better, your lives better.”
The evening basically began and ended with the schools question. The final inquiry of the night came from a 10-year-old Comly School student who precociously cited the irony of the School District of Philadelphia’s dire funding shortfall in light of this year’s free-spending campaigns for municipal and state elected offices. The boy’s name was John.
“All the people in the elections, they put all this money into the election commercials and ads and stuff, but they could give some of the money at least to the school district so they could give the money to the schools and the schools could provide for smart boards and other stuff that the schools need,” he said.
The audience interrupted him momentarily with an energetic round of applause.
“I don’t want to give money to the TV stations, either,” Kenney replied, cuing another round of giggles, before he highlighted his “symbolic and very real” plan to lease the mayor’s stadium luxury boxes for sporting events and concerts. All proceeds would go to the nonprofit Fund for the School District of Philadelphia.
“I’m leasing them out because I don’t need to sit in a luxury suite. When I go to a game, I usually sit in the stands with regular people. And if the teams would play better, we could raise a lot more money,” Kenney said. “We may be able to raise two to three million dollars, which isn’t solving all of the school district’s problems. But it’ll solve a lot.”
The dialogue wasn’t all up-beat. At one point, it even brought tears to a woman when she told of having her car impounded by police on the way to the meeting.
The woman, Estela Hernandez, spoke personally in Spanish before an interpreter translated her comments into English. Hernandez was one of several supporters of the New Sanctuary Movement at the meeting. The interpreter, Nicole Kligerman, is a community organizer for New Sanctuary, which advocates for immigrants on numerous issues.
One of the group’s active campaigns is to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. Hernandez’s intent that night was to seek Kenney’s help for the campaign. So she set out to drive herself and her three children, ages 11 to 6, to the meeting.
But a police officer happened to stop her car while she was enroute, she said. Because she didn’t have a driver’s license or registration, the officer seized the car under the city’s “Live Stop” law, leaving the woman and her children with no transportation, she said. Hernandez didn’t explain why the officer stopped her, where the incident occurred or how she made it to the meeting venue.
As she continued with her account of events, she began to weep. The translation drew groans from others in the audience. Kenney said that the city has no jurisdiction over driver licensing, yet the woman and her kids should not have been left in the cold.
“The Live Stop program was never intended to leave people on the sidewalk, especially people with children,” Kenney said. “They’re supposed to be transported to either a police station or a rec center, someplace where they can make a phone call. We’ll get to the bottom of why that happened.”
On the broader topic of immigration, Kenney said that the country needs a national policy that “makes sense” and that there should be “a fair and legal pathway to come to the United States.
“All of us came from somewhere else and we came because it was an opportunity to have a better life,” he said. “I don’t believe in shutting the door after we’ve gotten here.”
Kenney stated his views on other issues with local, statewide and national ramifications:
• He said he has no intention of building another prison, although he may support the city’s purchase of land at 7777R State Road for alternative development.
“The last thing I want to do is build a prison. When you build a prison, you fill it,” he said.
He contends that the city prison population can be reduced by subsidizing bail for non-violent, pretrial offenders who can’t afford bail requirements.
• In response to multiple questions about police deployment, particularly in the 15th district, Kenney said he will not micromanage the police department and he has full confidence in his selection of Richard Ross as the next police commissioner.
“Obviously, the manpower, personnel situation is critical,” Kenney said. “I promise, on the manpower assessment, we’ll look at it closely.”
• Kenney said he will end mandatory firefighter transfers and he supports the cross-training of firefighters and paramedics in each other’s duties.
Firehouse “brownouts will be dealt with in a reasonable way,” he added.
• Kenney said he hopes to promote development in neighborhoods using a mixed-use model that was employed along Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, allowing for businesses and residences.
Residents who were unable to attend the town hall meeting or who didn’t get a chance to speak are invited to submit questions and comments to the mayor’s transition team via kenneyforphiladelphia.com. ••
Discussing the issues: Candell Johnson asks a question during last week’s town hall meeting. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTOS
An open dialogue: Mayor-elect Jim Kenney hosted his third of four town hall meetings around the city last Thursday. He responded to 20 public comments during a Q&A session at the Mayfair Community Center and discussed school funding and immigration. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO