Hallwatch: Keeping An Eye on City Hall

Edmund Goppelt of Hallwatch.org

In 2001, inspired by citizen activism and the effectiveness of old-fashioned letter writing campaigns, web publisher Edmund Goppelt started Hallwatch to provide information about Philadelphia politics and policies to the city’s citizens. Hallwatch informs Philadelphians about issues being decided in City Council, provides city real estate and tax information, and offers a faxbank where residents can type in their zip code and write letters to their representatives, all the way up to the Governor, and send them, free, with the click of a button. It is an empowering tool for citizens.

If you ask Goppelt how Hallwatch got its start, he’ll tell you it was “doggie activism”. An avid dog lover, he and a group of neighbors were upset about the closing of a nearby dog park. “Like a lot of situations in the city,” says Goppelt, “there were these two factions that were not in accord.”

“There was a small group of neighbors who objected to having this dog park, and then there was a whole group of people with dogs that wanted to preserve this amenity.”

Then an ‘anti-barking’ bill came before City Council, a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ bill for dogs. This provoked Goppelt to develop a website to organize dog owners in opposition to this bill. The following is a transcript of our interview.

How do you keep a dog from barking?
Well, later on, I came to the conclusion that these bills periodically get passed through City Council. It’s a way for these guys to say they’re being tough on crime, they’re being tough on doggie barking. But they’re never enforced.

Hallwatch was the dog owner’s website, revised. I had some time on my hands and I’d learned some lessons. And probably the primary lesson I came away with was websites are a potent political tool. And that there seemed to be this disconnect between regular citizens and their elected representatives in City Council. We didn’t know what they were up to. There was no website where you could go and look and see what legislation they were planning on passing that had to do with our interests, in this case the interests of dog owners. Not only did we not know what they were up to, it was hard for people to get in touch with them.

It seemed to me, here are these two groups, citizens and elected officials, and they’re supposed to be talking to each other. Elected officials are supposed to be passing legislation which is in the citizen’s best interest, and citizens are supposed to more or less know what council is up to. So I thought both of those things could be improved. Being a computer person, I thought it would be relatively easy for me to set up a website that catalogues legislation in front of City Council. They did not have a service, at that time. They just recently rolled out their own legislative database, five years after Hallwatch started.

You’re kidding! Is it the same as Hallwatch?
[smiles] Better late than never. There’re some services I don’t think it offers. I don’t think it has a calendar to show what bills are being heard in the upcoming week or month, and I don’t think they offer transcripts the way Hallwatch does.

How did the doggie issue turn out?
The Councilmember provided another site. The barking bill passed. The process of negotiating with DiCicco’s office led to me being kicked out as president of the dog owner’s association. It was a real lesson in divide and conquer politics, which, in my opinion, DiCicco excels at. Part of growing up politically is coming to terms with the fact that people are going to play dirty sometimes and you have to prepare for that.

He’s a formidable politician. In DiCicco’s defense, his council district is particularly balkanized. That type of environment has probably shaped his approach to dealing with people. That’s simply what it takes to exercise power in the Councilman’s district.

Can you highlight one or two instances where Hallwatch made a difference? I read about the billboard issue, for instance.
Well, that was another fight involving Councilman DiCicco. And probably Senator Fumo, although it was a city issue, involving how much say residents could have in zoning disputes. And DiCicco proposed this bill that would have reduced the standing, would have raised the bar people would have to meet in order to object to some of the decisions in our neighborhoods. This was Bill 629, and at the time I recall him promoting the legislation, saying it would enhance the influence of citizen groups, which I thought was really a bold piece of political rhetoric. But that’s another one of his strong points. He can call night day and pull it off convincingly, or at least it gets printed in the papers. I’m not sure what that says about our papers. So he made this claim. But a lot of influential people objected to having their standing reduced. And he lost.

And did Hallwatch initiate a letter writing campaign?
We had several bouts of letter writing, which Hallwatch helped facilitate. I set up some pages devoted to the issue, and then I helped Mary Tracy, who was the point person fighting for taxpayer standing, fighting for residents having the right to participate in zoning decisions. So I did what I could to help the cause. For example, I set up pages with background to the bill, to counteract the propaganda that was being put out. And encouraged people to write.

What do you do when confronted with silence? When there’s no misinformation to counteract, there’s just nothing? I mean, it seems these days that the tactic of a government that doesn’t wish to respond to citizens is just to remain silent. I’m thinking of the casino issue.
It is much harder when your opponent doesn’t respond. In the case of the casino issue, I’m very concerned by the lack of hard-hitting coverage by the two daily newspapers. Which, of course, were recently acquired by a group that includes not just one, but two casino investors. Not just Brian Tierney, but Leslie Brun.

What do you do when there’s silence? My impulse is you do something like what NABR (Neighbors Allied for the Best Riverfront) did when it went to Harrisburg. The Gaming Board’s been putting out the propaganda that they’ve given people plenty of opportunity to talk about the casinos. And yet they won’t let people speak at their meetings. Somebody has to stand up and make it clear that this is a lie. That there are people who want to speak badly enough that they’re willing to do something incredibly gutsy, which is to interrupt and disrupt the decorum of a solemn government meeting with 300 people in attendance. It takes guts. Jethro Heiko, in particular, deserves credit for being willing to do that, as do those other brave NABR members who stood up. That’s one of the things I particularly respect about NABR, is their willingness to step up to the plate. So often, I’ve seen people willing to complain privately, but unwilling to put their reputation where their mouth is. To speak out publicly, put out their own money, take a bus to Harrisburg, that really separates the ‘men from the boys’.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to step over that line. We’re raised with these ideas of citizenship, the basic principles in the constitution and the bill of rights, and sort of believe that they’re at work and being protected even though we can’t keep track of them, because many people are working 60 hour weeks and raising kids. And yet, these days, we’re made to seem silly if we demand that these principles be adhered to.
I think democracy is a participatory sport. Voting is just the tip of the iceberg. If all you do is vote and you passively accept everything else, you don’t protest, you don’t write your legislators, in my opinion, you’re not doing your job as a citizen.

But you know how much time it takes to do that. And people don’t realize the difference it makes. I think Hallwatch has helped to empower them and to make it easier for citizens to participate.
If you give people hope that they can make a difference, then people actually will start making a difference. Pressure does work. People have to be persuaded that when they get up at a public meeting or they write a letter, that they’re not doing it for naught.

When did you first jump into the casino fray? What attracted your attention? And where’s Hallwatch now, in the struggle?
This issue affects me personally. I live about a 15-minute walk away from the proposed Foxwoods casino. There’s nothing like being personally affected by an issue to motivate a journalist to really dig deep and find out what’s going on. That’s actually one of my complaints with the Inquirer. I think they’re too isolated from the function of the city. Most of [the journalists] live outside the city, they don’t have a personal stake in what goes on here.

The more I looked into it, the more it seemed like there’s no real public debate about bringing in these enormous developments, these casinos that will be every bit as large as the largest casinos in Las Vegas. That, perhaps as a result, policies had been solidified and been made into law. And my feeling was that this represented a kind of civic emergency. First of all, it was not too late to get some kind of public discussion going.

When did you first get involed?
I’d been hearing about the casino issue since around January, when the applicants had to have their proposals ready. But what I first looked into were these private meetings that were being organized by Councilman DiCicco. Where he was brokering these introductions between casino developers and leaders of community groups. And as a resident I objected to this kind of closed door approach, the idea that they’re not going to have open meetings. We talked earlier about ‘divide and conquer’, and when you have meetings like that, it’s a perfect opportunity to divide and conquer. You can play groups off each other, nobody really knows what happened in another meeting. And the other thing that concerned me when I started looking into the issue is that it was clear that folks in West Philly, the Multi-Community Alliance, who were organizing to deal with the Trump casino and had come out against the Trump casino, were far, far ahead of riverfront groups in terms of their organization. And having been through political struggles, I was alarmed at how things were shaping up. It was clear to me that, here’s this one group that was well in place, creating an effective movement to channel political power, to deal with these issues on at least a halfway equal footing, and then here was the same divide and conquer tactics being applied in the river wards. And the community leaders I talked to, and I talked to a lot of them, seemed totally ignorant of the magnitude of the players they would be dealing with. Some of them were even unfamiliar with the idea of a community benefits agreement, which is a contract between the casino and the community. They were just totally unprepared.

At that point, DiCicco’s office was putting out a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ line. That there would be plenty of time to negotiate with casinos. This is what he said at one of these meetings, he said, there’s plenty of time and we should wait until after the licensing decisions are made to strike these deals with the casinos. You know, anybody who thinks about it, I think, would have to come to the conclusion that you’re giving away all your negotiating leverage. Before the decision is made is when to negotiate. Afterwards, you have nothing. So it almost seemed to me Councilman DiCicco was leading community groups astray. By encouraging them to not take any action, he was going to cause them to give away some of their political power, in a situation where, it seems to me, the state has done everything possible to take away as much power as possible from the people in the front line- residents. And, as a resident, I really think communities should make decisions for themselves as much as possible, without the interference of some big government in Harrisburg or Washington telling them what to do. If a community were to vote and decide to have a casino, and I know there are communities out there that support having a casino under Act 71, I would have far less of a problem with that. In the case of South Philly, I resent having the state government plop one of these gigantic casinos right in the middle of our residential neighborhood, giving us no say, and for the sole purpose of earning money for the state. We’re being used to generate money for the state because they lack the guts to deal with tax issues.

They’re only argument, as far as I can tell, is the money. It’s the only pro. No one really wants to talk about it at all, but if you bring up casinos, all you ever hear about is the money. Are there deficits that we are not aware of? Why is it so important to put the speed on getting these funds flowing in without due consideration?
Neither the city nor the state government are stressed at this point. The city’s running a surplus and the state’s fiscal crisis of a few years ago is no more. So the money argument is bogus.

So the argument that this is going to bring lots of money is supposed to provoke a pavlovian response in people? Of course we want more money, hang everything else?
What you’re seeing is a political rationale that’s being offered in defense of the casinos. Why do the politicians want this so badly? I think because for them it gives them a huge pot of money to have control over. If you look at how revenues from Act 71 are going to be divvied up, 5% of the revenues, I think $159 million a year, is going to go into the legislative slush fund, the DCED grant program, which legislators have direct control over, and the 8.64%, that’s going to go into some sort of horseracing fund, you know. My guess is the state’s horseracing industry doesn’t need $200 million, and that other, more creative uses could be found for at least some of that money.

I understand the idea is to lower property taxes, or for Philadelphia to lower the wage tax. What does that translate into dollars? Are you aware of anyone who’s crunching these numbers?
It comes to maybe like a 10% reduction in people’s property taxes, which isn’t very much. Why are the politicians so keen on bringing gambling? I think it has nothing to do with the stated reasons. They say, we need the development, we need the money, well, I think that’s bull. The state and city governments have plenty of money right now. You need only look at South Philly to see that it’s not an area in need of revitalization. Up north there are lots of condo towers going up, so it doesn’t seem like a very strong argument. What these guys are in it for is political money that they will have control over. These stories need to be written about. That’s why Hallwatch is looking to hire writers to really pin the facts down.

I guess you’d have to say that there’s been some reaction to the pressure put on politicians by Hallwatch and NABR, like on Councilman DiCicco. Do you think it’s working?
DiCicco did submit some detailed final comments to the gaming board in which he made clear which proposals were better than others, from his point of view, and outlined objective facts in support of those opinions. And that was more than Michael Nutter did. They’re the only two who sent in comments. DiCicco’s comments were very detailed. So, I see that as being something real that he’s done on behalf of the residents and he deserves credit for that.

I suppose the number one hope is, it’s not a done deal. At this point there are no slots machines operating anywhere in the state. And there’s a bunch of stuff that needs to happen before the first slots parlors open their doors. The Gaming Board has said that it wants to license the racetracks for slot machine parlors for September, and I think they stand a good chance of being able to do that. I think originally the slots were just going to be at racetracks, I think that’s why there wasn’t any real opposition when the Act was first passed.

So, in your years running Hallwatch, can you tell me about any trends you’ve noticed in our local government? For the better or worse? How about one for the better, one for the worse?
One thing in which there’s been notable progress is the city is making much better use of web technology to provide information and services to people. I’ll tell you a story. I’ve long felt competition is a great motivator of people and institutions and of course government for the most part doesn’t really have competition. But when I first rolled out the real estate pages on Hallwatch, which are based on data from the tax assessors, from BRT, within 24 hours the tax assessor made available a website with the identical information. And this was an internal website they had had going for at least a year, but had never gotten around to opening up to the public. So, Hallwatch opened its service and the very next day they made their service public.

So, that’s good, though, right? That’s a positive result.
Absolutely. Ultimately, I think, the government is the one that should be providing these information services. I’m just some guy sitting in his pajamas typing on his computer screen. People shouldn’t have to depend on somebody like me for access to city tax records. The city should be doing that. The same goes for pending legislation going before City Council. Now they do that, but it took them five years to do it.

As far as political processes opening up, giving citizens more of a say, I find that hard to judge. Because I get treated differently now. I will say this in defense of City Council members. I think it’s easy to criticize government officials as being uncaring and not wanting to hear from the people they represent. But it’s a huge job they do. It’s hard to please everybody.

2006-08-07 07:39:26

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