Philadelphia isn’t an easy place to govern. But Mayor Michael Nutter has undoubtedly made an outsized impact on the city, creating a Philadelphia that’s cleaner, safer, smarter and more fiscally sound than the city he began leading in 2008. Becoming mayor just as the recession was deepening prevented Nutter from launching many grand new initiatives. Instead, he has done the dig-in-the-ground dirty work that has put the city on a firmer financial footing and fostered in Philadelphia a new sense of energy and innovation. “He helped right the ship by not panicking and [by] having long-term goals, not short-term fixes,” says Randall Miller, a historian at St. Joseph’s University.
The homicide rate has dropped by more than 35 percent, while violent crime in general continues to tick down. The city’s public schools, which are largely run by the state, are still a work in progress, but the high school dropout rate has come down 20 percent in recent years. In September, Nutter helped persuade Harrisburg to allow a cigarette tax that will help patch the school district’s shoddy finances. Nutter didn’t get everything he wanted from a pension overhaul, but he did update an antiquated, opaque and clearly unfair property assessment system. He oversaw the city’s first comprehensive plan in more than 50 years -- a document that could take into account the growing number of young professionals and small and innovative businesses drawn to the city on his watch, helping to expand and brighten Center City.
On the national level, Nutter has been a leading voice on issues such as gun control, combating obesity among residents trapped in low-nutrition food deserts, greener building and stormwater runoff, and maintaining funding for Community Development Block Grants. “He is a student of government who has become the professor,” says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. “He has earned his way into the dean’s role of mayors across America.”
At home, Nutter has made a government never well known for good customer service run more smoothly, both through strong appointments and his endless interest in tinkering through his Office of New Urban Mechanics. It’s far from perfect, but citizens who interact with the city now can expect to get a result -- without having to rely on the pay-to-play ways that formerly dominated dealings with city hall. “There hasn’t been so much as a whiff of public corruption to taint either Mayor Nutter or his inner circle,” Philadelphia magazine noted in July.
Philadelphia still has big challenges, but Nutter has presided over a government that is more open and honest and a city that is more populous and prosperous. “In the long term, if everything keeps working the way it has,” says Miller, “Michael Nutter will be seen as one of the more effective mayors of the last half-century.” -- By Alan Greenblatt
Read about the rest of the Public Officials of the Year here.