Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Interview with Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Richard Negrin

Daniel Rackley: I’m here with Philadelphia Deputy Mayor and Managing Director Richard Negrin.  I’d like to thank you for sitting down with me today.

Richard Negrin:  You’re welcome.  It’s a pleasure.

DR:  Now this may be a well known fact or not depending what circle you run in; but you had a short stint in the National Football League.  What do you think prompted you the most to make the jump from professional sports to becoming an attorney?

RN:  I learned a lot of things while I was playing football.  I don’t think people realize the amount of dedication and work that it takes, especially at the professional level.  Sometimes, it was a seventeen or eighteen hour day.  Starting with early meetings, film study, playbook study.  Meetings with your teammates, meetings with your position coach.  Double practice sessions.  So it was both mentally and physically grueling.  So I think you learn a lot of things.  I think you learn a lot about your work ethic, a lot of what you’re made of in terms of character.  In terms of setting a goal and working really hard.  And you learn a lot of stamina; a lot of mental and physical stamina as well.  Which is grueling.  I think at the end of a training camp you’re just emotionally and mentally and physically exhausted.  Where all you want to do is sleep.  And you have one of those classic nights where it feels like you just went to sleep and your alarm goes off; and it’s 6am and you’ve got a meeting in an hour.  So there’s a lot of great things.  It’s one of the reasons why I encourage my kids to play sports.  That you can learn a lot of things by being part of a great team activity like that.  And I think football served that for me.

DR:  Great answer.  Well to follow up, what lessons from your time in the NFL do you think benefitted you the most in your current position?

RN:  One of the things I think I learned a great deal; is that we used to videotape everything we did.  Whether it was practice or games or scrimmages.  Or drills; the concept of unvarnished self reflection around how you are doing and sort of that thought of continuous improvement is something I try to summon every single day.  We look at how we’re doing things in the city when we look at our PhillyStat program, which is our performance management program here in the city.  I want PhillyStat to be that sort of a mechanism.  And I think that comes right out of football.  I become comfortable evaluating every single thing I did on a regular basis.  Because if I missed a block, and it was embarrassing I became embarrassed in front of my teammates and everyone else.  And I would learn from it.  It was always done in a positive sense, and it was sort of that always striving to get better every single day mentality.  It’s something I think I try to apply every single day when it comes to this job.

DR:  Going to ask you a couple of things about the Philly 311 system.  Where do you think the city has benefited the most in terms of this program handling citizen’s individual issues?

RN:  I think in the past, navigating the city; the city is a complex structure.  With lots of employees and it can be confusing in terms of who you go to for what.  One of the biggest values that I think 311 has is that it’s that single point of contact.  Which as the citizens learn where do you reach out to, 311 kind of eliminates that confusion.  If you don’t know who to call.  If you’re not sure exactly what you need but you have a problem, or you are just looking for information; 311 is the resource for that.  So that in and of itself is an incredibly important function.  In the past, there was this concept that you had to know somebody to get something you need is really antiquated.  And 311 helps do away with that. 

DR:  In follow up to that, recently City Controller Alan Butkovitz referred to the 311 system as a “glorified answering service that is nothing but a waste of money.”  Now do you think he’s looking too much at the short term financial cost and not lot looking at the fact that the city needs time to fully develop the service.

RN:  Yes.  I think that’s exactly right.  I think he has failed to realize the obvious.  Which is 311 is still in its beginning phase of development.  So if you look at cities like New York and Baltimore, they’ve had 311 running for almost ten to fifteen years.  Here, we’re really two and a half years in.  Systems like this take time, and I think the Controller has failed to grasp the fact that this is a fledging department.  When’s the last time we created a department that performed a function as important as 311?  Nobody can remember that, because it was so long ago.  You’re talking about a department that was not there two and a half years ago, and it now there providing an incredibly valuable service.  One of the things that he Controller also did that I do not think made any kind of sense; is he criticized the department for the call center piece.  Which one of the parts that the public likes the most.  They want to be able to go somewhere and actually ask for information, instead of just doing a service request.  The fact that 311 has been there to answer those questions on seventy percent of their calls where there’s first call resolution.  Where somebody has a question and they answer it.  What a lot of calls that 311 gets that a lot of folks don’t know is court information.  That’s valuable to people.  They want to know what’s happening with their cases.  What’s happening with their cousin’s case or with this matter or that matter.  That’s a valuable service and I think the Controller discounted that inappropriately.

DR:  Absolutely.  There’s several obvious cases on the news, especially during inclement weather where the 311 system has been a great aid to people who normally wouldn’t be able to get rapid help from the city.

RN:  And that’s an important point that I want to make.  Even though the hours around 311 have been reduced, where it’s not open twenty four hours a day; it’s open from 8am to 8pm.  So we get people after normal work hours usually.  Whenever we do have something like a snowstorm or the hurricane, we take a special emphasis to be open twenty four hours during those times.  So that we’re there when people need us the most.  So that’s something that is important to mention and I’m glad you mentioned it.

DR:  You spent several years working as a pro bono counsel for the FSMA.  Do you think that more elected officials would benefit from working extensively for nonprofit organizations?

RN:  I do.  You know, I started that work for very personal reasons.  My daughter was afflicted with a terrible disease called spinal muscular atrophy.  And she lost her battle with that disease just four years ago.  And we learned when we got involved there were just thirty eight families whose children were afflicted with this terrible disease.  This disease is the number one genetic killer of children under the age of two.  When your kids are diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, and type one which is the most severe; it is highly unlikely they are going to make it to their second birthday.  We were very lucky because we had Children’s Hospital right here.  And my wife who was a trained attorney in child abuse and a rape prosecutor dedicated her life to keeping our daughter alive during the years she was fighting the disease while I went off to work.  So my daughter was able to live past the age of five; which at the time was the longest living child that was being treated for the disease at CHOP.  That’s something we were very proud of.  The disease is horrible.  You know, whether it’s SMA or breast cancer or pancreatic cancer or domestic violence; I think that attorneys and folks in both the public and private sector should get involved.  I don’t think you have to be a public servant to do that.  My wife with the walks and fundraisers she has done has raised over five hundred thousand dollars.  All of which has gone to research to help combat that disease.  And that’s a great place to put your energy; is to try and make a difference around something as terrible as that.

DR:  This past August I interviewed Councilman Bill Green and it was on the subject of flash mobs and youth violence.  Now he stated in the interview that the measures that Mayor Nutter had put into place that although they were a good start; they were not nearly enough.  Now even after the past couple of weeks where the curfew bill was passed through city council; would you agree with Councilman Green on his statement?

RN:  No.  I think we’ve heard some criticism the other way recently, that the curfew is not the solution.  It’s interesting to hear Councilman Green say that it wasn’t enough.  It’s also important to realize that the curfew is not the only thing we did around flash mobs.  Folks need to understand that.  What we did around the flash mob piece was brilliant on the part of our mayor.  First of all he used very strong leadership.  He used the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office to make a very strong statement.  From a pulpit, literally.  On a vein of personal responsibility.  Of appealing to parents in terms of tone and what we we’re going to tolerate as a city.  Then the curfew worked hand in hand with that.  The increased police presence is another piece that is beyond the curfew.  The engagement of the community.  It’s one of the first times where I can remember we engaged the nonprofit and the community like town watches and the others.  Now those folks were out marching, keeping tracks of areas where there had been flash mobs in the past.  So it was a comprehensive plan, both in terms of communication and personal responsibility.  In terms of the police and the community to really have a holistic approach to the entire flash mob issue.

DR:  You recently sent written testimony to the Pennsylvania state legislature regarding House Bill 738; which would essentially be a mirror of the legislation currently in place in Arizona.  If you could, elaborate as to what was contained in that testimony and what your stance on the bill exactly is.

RN:  It’s not just that bill.  There’s twenty some odd bills in Harrisburg that I would characterize as being not immigrant friendly.  I’m going to resist any attempt by the state legislature to turn Pennsylvania into Arizona.  There’s a reason why I think Philadelphia grew for the first time in sixty years.  A lot of that growth came from our Hispanic and Latino community.  There’s a reason why we overtook Phoenix to take the spot as the fifth most populated city in the country.  I think we’re being shortsighted as a government if we send out the message that we are not friendly to people from other countries.  So I think when you do things like the English Only law; English is not at risk in America.  When you feel like you have to pass a law that is based on intolerance; it sends a clear message to folks that want to come to the United States.  That they are not welcome.  And when you do that, it’s less about tolerance and the core values of our country.  We’re a nation founded by immigrants.  Philadelphia has a rich immigrant history.  A hundred years ago it was the Italians and the Irish.  Now, it’s the Dominicans and the Latinos.  That doesn’t mean that a hundred years from now there won’t be some other group.  And the truth is, the American Dream is still alive here.  We did a naturalization ceremony a few weeks ago in front of Independence Mall.  And you should see the faces of those people.  Around thirty folks becoming American citizens.  And it’s one of the favorite things I get to do; to watch those people raise their right hands and take the oath of citizenship.  That dream is still alive and we need to encourage folks to make Philadelphia a great international destination city.  That’s the vision that Mayor Nutter has for Philadelphia, to be known as a progressive inviting city.  That is about business growth and international growth.  And when you have legislation like the one you mentioned, I think it’s counterproductive to everything we are trying to do from a global perspective.

DR:  What do you think that Mayor Nutter could do to make his second term more successful than his first?

RN:  That is a great question.  Because we think of that a lot around here.  The mayor and I have talked about this a great deal.  One of the things we want to do is something about illegal guns in Philadelphia.  We want to spend time on violence here.  What we recognize is that we’ve done a great job with the homicide rate.  It’s dropped somewhere between eighteen and twenty two percent since the mayor took office.  Overall homicides and the number of violent crimes are down.  We’re doing a fantastic job there but it’s not good enough.  One is too many and this mayor gets that.  With all the economic hardships that we have, how do we change the culture around violence in Philadelphia?  I lost my father to a MAC-10 submachine gun that you can still buy in the internet today.  So I care deeply about the gun issue and I care deeply about violence.  It’s one of the reasons why I went into public service and law school.  I was there and watched my father die and held him in my arms as he passed away.  There’s kids just like me out there in the streets of Philadelphia watching their loved ones die.  I was able to break that chain through faith, football and family.  Not every kid in Philadelphia has that support network that I was lucky to have.  We have to figure out what kind of cultural change we can do so kids aren’t picking up guns to resolve their problems instead of good conflict resolution.  So those kids that are victims of crime don’t act out and have revenge.  The no snitching culture which we are starting to fight back on now needs to be replaced by a culture that embraces the kids that goes strongly against the belief that you can solve your issues with a gun.  And that means things for them to do.  We need a holistic perspective that engages the community; the faith based community.  The nonprofit community, the police.  We all need to work together to make it so that it’s really uncool to have a gun and make those kids put those guns down.  This isn’t about gun control, guns are already here.  It’s about getting folks to take responsibility and put those guns down.  So that’s something we are going to spend time on in the next couple of years.  Because when you decide to take violence into your hands, you not only destroy your own life, not just the person you were violent towards.  There’s a lost generation there.  You are more likely to get shot if you are an African American male than you are to die any other way.  And that needs to stop.

DR:  If you would have had to step into Mayor Nutter’s position in the past four years, what decisions did he make that you would have made different?

RN:  Great question.  One of the reasons I’m here is because I believe in this man and what he does.  I agree with him almost a hundred percent of the time, which is a good thing.  So I wouldn’t know how to answer that.

DR:  A few weeks ago, you posted a picture from your office window of some of the members of the Occupy Philly movement.  Does being so close to the protesters inspire you to work harder for reform on the municipal side of things?

RN:  I don’t think a whole lot of folks understand how I feel generally about them.  I take very seriously my responsibility, every single day to make sure that they are safe.  I don’t think some people understand that.  Some folks have a tendency to see it as an us against them  mentality.  And that’s not how we feel at all.  When we have our meetings and we talk about Occupy Philly; it’s never about us and them.  One of the things I like about them is that they are Philadelphians.  So there aren’t a whole lot of folks that are coming from other places.  So whether or not you like or agree with what they stand for; it’s almost irrelevant.  Because they are citizens of Philadelphia and they deserve my best every single day just like everyone else.  The concerns around the sanitation issues and the graffiti issues and other ones that I have had with them are issues that directly impact their safety and well being.  To prevent disease and to have good cleanliness.  And that’s something you can’t lose sight of.  When they see us giving them a hard time or asking them about these other issues like we did in our letter; it’s not because we’re trying to give them a hard time.  It’s because we want to keep them safe.  And we believe that we have a moral obligation as part of what we do to make sure that we treat them just as well as we would treat anybody else.  That the homeless and the folks that are in that encampment and the Occupiers that are there simply there to exercise their free speech can do in a manner that doesn’t impact public safety.  I’m concerned about the possibility of things like a fire.  There are people down there with medical conditions.  So I think being close to them and being able to see them keeps that in my head all the time.  That’s what keeps me up at night is to make sure that something terrible doesn’t happen.  That there’s no catastrophic event that occurs and no loss of life or harm on either side.  And I think that’s something we’ve continued to do well.  We have to continue to talk and communicate.  But that’s the big concern is that something was to go wrong.  If we go to code blue, which is when it gets so cold that conditions outside are life threatening.  I’m really concerned about what happens; because I think the last thing they want is a homeless person dying in a tent because of the temperature. 

DR:  What do you think that the city hopes to accomplish between city officials and members of the Occupy Philly movement?

RN:  Just an open communication.  You know, the conditions change there on almost a daily basis.  As we talk about temperature changes.  As we talk about the possibility of them moving to a different location because of the City Hall project that’s coming.  As we work through those issues, I’d love to have a forum where we don’t have to wait weeks to sit down and talk.  We have a mechanism in place when both sides sit down where they can address issues on their side; and we can on ours.  And then things can be taken to the General Assembly to be voted on in due course in a manner that is fairly efficient. 

DR:  With the recent arrests the past couple of weeks that were made on the Occupy Philly protesters; how do you think other cities that are dealing with Occupy movements of their own could learn from what was done here in Philadelphia?

RN:  I think our approach has been interesting.  The day before they started setting up, we met with some of their leaders and the mayor’s office.  To my knowledge, no other city had done that.  So we started to set up a line of communication early on.  As the movement developed, we’ve worked very hard not to create unnecessary conflict with the police.  So when they do marches or sit ins, we only use the amount of force required to fulfill what’s absolutely legally necessary.  So when they blocked the street in front of the police administration building, we waited as long as we could possibly wait.  We have them every single opportunity and those folks were clearly determined to get arrested.  And I asked them that question when I showed up and they looked at me and it was pretty clear that’s why they went there.  I think the incident at the Comcast building is a good example of that.  I think those people went there determined to get arrested.  And that’s ok.  I think those folks see that as their way of making a statement.  There are a lot of different ways to make a statement.  You can write, you can blog, some can film and be a documentary filmmaker.  Some feel like that have to shout from the rooftops; some feel like they have to get arrested.  I don’t prefer that latter part because I feel that it’s confrontational and it can lead to problems.  Whenever you have interaction with the police I always worry about somebody resisting and acting in a way that causes the officer to have to escalate the amount of force they have to use.  And then it becomes a very thorny situation.  So you want to avoid direct confrontation with the police as much as possible.  So I think here we’ve made a decision that we are going to try to do everything possible to treat folks with respect.  To only use the amount of force that’s absolutely required.  And I think the arrests at the Comcast building were an example of that.  They were peaceful.  I heard from the police that some of the protesters were thanking them for their professional and courteous manner while they were being arrested.  Which is pretty interesting.  Because all you need is one person acting irrationally on either side and you could have a very different situation.  I don’t like having arrests, but if it is going to happen I’m proud of the way they are occurring.

DR:  Now, on the other side of the coin; what do you think protesters in other cities could learn from the ones here in Philadelphia?

RN:  That communication is important.  These folks have figured out a way to do that.  So now we are working through their legal collective in a way that I think is positive.  The use of social media and our ability to interact on social media on both sides has been a positive thing in terms of having lines of communication.  I think that’s something they could learn.  The more that other protesters see that you can come here and make your point without destroying property.  Without disrupting the citizenry.  I think that the movement would rapidly lose support if they started to block traffic on a regular basis.  So I think these folks have done a decent job making sure they are not doing that.  So the public outcry against them hasn’t been there. 

DR:  Do you think that the Occupy Philly movement is going to benefit the city in the long run even though there’s been expenditures in the tens of thousands daily to cover police overtime pay?

RN:  I think that depends on what comes out of all this.  A year from now and we’ll see the Occupy movement having a more defined role.  I think they are still figuring out who they are.  Whether this becomes about poverty, the shrinking middle class, homelessness or what’s happening with CEO pay.  I think that’s something that the city cares a lot about.  It’s something that Mayor Nutter cares a lot about.  One of the mayor’s top goals is for us to be the greenest city in the country.  So if it’s about those issues, those are all issues that we as a city appreciate the emphasis on.  It’s consistent with everything that we are trying to do as an administration and not necessarily consistent with the thinking in Harrisburg and Washington.  So to the extent that it helps highlight some of the things that we talk about; they are issues that Mayor Nutter has been beating the drum on for some time.  It’s about jobs, it’s about poverty.  It’s about what’s happening in the inner city and education.  If that lines up with whatever ends up being the Occupy movement’s main platform is, then I think that’ll be a positive thing.

I would like to thank Deputy Mayor Richard Negrin for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down and conduct this interview.

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