By Merry Reed
During her first two months in office, new City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart says she is focusing on making the work of her office more transparent to the public.
The City Controller’s Office, an independently-elected arm of Philadelphia government, is designed as an independent auditor. However, Rhynhart alleges that making audit findings accessible has not been a high priority of government officials, including her predecessors.
According to the newly-elected Controller, “too often, financial information is not given to the public in a digestible way.”
After encountering questions from citizens at community meetings, Rhynhart recognized the need for open, transparent communication and says she is making changes as a result.
She has restructured the City Controller’s Office with improved transparency in mind. One of her new hires is a specialist in data visualization, who will develop a new website specifically to show government financial information in an easy-to-understand fashion.
In addition to criticizing past Controllers for producing reports which were not accessible to the public, Rhynhart also wants to work more collaboratively with the agencies she is in charge of watching.
Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz, who held the office for 12 years, was famous for his antagonistic relationship with the rest of city government, especially former Mayor Michael Nutter.
In one notable exchange, after Butkovitz issued a report about the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, Nutter described Butkovitz as having a “narcissistic personality disorder that seems to compel the need for constant public attention.”
Butkovitz fired back by comparing Nutter to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Rhynhart says she will be on her guard not to be co-opted, and says she is ready to stand her ground if necessary, but believes that taxpayers benefit most when city administration willingly gets on board.
The new Controller is applying her policy for more transparency and greater cooperation to two high-priority audits that she has begun since taking office.
The first audit is of the Behavioral Health Fund, to determine whether those funds, which are provided by the City to third-party organizations to pay for treatment for Philadelphians, are being used to maximum effect.
“The fund hasn’t had a performance audit as far back as anyone can remember, even though the budget for behavioral health is almost one and a half billion dollars a year. I want to ensure that all of the money that we do have is being spent well”, Rhynhart expressed.
Her team will also be focusing on the Philadelphia Parking Authority, especially its sexual harassment policies and failure to provide adequate funds to the Philadelphia School District.
After reviewing State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s comprehensive audits of the PPA, which outlined the ways in which financial mismanagement was diverting funding from the school district, the misuse of funding struck a chord with Philadelphia’s new Controller.
When asked why funding for the Philadelphia School District is one of her main concerns, Rhynhart responded that “there’s nothing more important than increasing the quality of our schools and educational attainment”.
When reached for comment, new PPA Executive Director Scott Petri told The Declaration that “in undertaking the position, I knew that one of my primary early responsibilities would be to carefully review and implement the Audit Report.”
Petri said that changes are already underway in order to achieve compliance, including a revised employee handbook for PPA workers, and that all PPA employees are undergoing regular sexual harassment training, with all employees required to complete the training by the end of this month.
The full extent of the changes within the Philadelphia Parking Authority have yet to be seen by the public, but the early cooperation Rhynhart has received may indicate that her emphasis on cooperation will bear fruit.