Commissioner Is Off The Streets

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Wednesday, September 14, 1988, Page 1B

Perks Found Turmoil In Office But Praise At End

By Robin Clark, Inquirer Staff Writer

Maybe the best a city streets commissioner can hope for is anonymity.

If the job goes well – if trash is collected, streets swept, potholes filled and snow plowed – the chances are that few people outside government will ever know who runs the city’s second-largest bureaucracy.

Obscurity, however, was a luxury unknown to the retiring streets commissioner, Harry M. Perks.

His 3 1/2-year tenure was marked by labor strife, public criticism, political turmoil and a series of well-publicized trash crises that made Philadelphia a national example of how not to solve a problem – and made Perks practically a household name.

Nonetheless, Perks, 60, left his post yesterday having won the admiration and affection of his peers and the grudging respect even of some department critics.

Although he lost the battle over trash-to-steam, he bought the city time to seek another solution, negotiating a landfill contract that should stabilize the city’s disposal system for the next six years.

He increased the department’s street-cleaning efforts and worked to curb the spread of illegal neighborhood dumps. He improved labor relations, which had been blamed for many of the department’s problems, and shortly before announcing his retirement this summer, he helped win sweeping changes in union work rules that will allow his successor to streamline department operations. Former Fairmount Park Commision director Alexander L. Hoskins is replacing him.

“I’ve seen seven or eight commissioners, and . . . (Perks is) the best, no questions asked,” said Bruce Gledhill, a 17-year Streets Department veteran who was named last year as deputy commissioner in charge of sanitation.

Said Water Commissioner William J. Marrazzo, another fan: “On the labor- relations front, he will be leaving one heck of a legacy. He has laid a foundation that is so strong it would be difficult not to build on it.”

Environmental lawyer Jerome Balter, a frequent critic of the city’s sluggish recycling program and the administration’s pursuit of trash-to-steam, faulted Perks for being “too much the engineer and not enough the policy developer.” In the push for trash-to-steam, Balter said, Perks often lacked sensitivity to political considerations and to public-health concerns raised by environmentalists and neighborhood activists.

On the whole, though, Balter praised Perks as “a concerned civil servant who tried to do the best under difficult circumstances.”

Perks, a former president of engineering giant Day & Zimmerman, came out of retirement to take the Streets Department job in February 1985. He didn’t need the money, he said, but relished the challenge to solve the trash problem, which had been mounting since New Jersey’s Kinsley Landfill closed a year earlier.

Perks, however, was quickly sidetracked by other problems.

Two weeks after his appointment, he was hit by a wildcat strike that halted trash collection. Perks got the trash trucks rolling again, but only after rehiring a laborer who had been fired over the protests of union boss Earl Stout.

“How can I accomplish anything when I can’t even run my own operation?” Perks said at the time, lamenting the hold that the union, District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had on his department.

It was the first of many such frustrations.

Critics accused Perks of violating the city residency rule, noting that although the commissioner had rented an apartment on Rittenhouse Square, he continued to maintain his family home in Medford, N.J.

In April 1986, a state grand jury reported “widespread bribery” of Streets Department workers by private haulers seeking access to city dump sites.

Even the weather seemed to have it in for Perks. Caught off guard by a January 1987 snowstorm that stranded motorists for hours, Perks and other city officials later had to explain a union practice that allowed snowplow operators to collect overtime even while they were sleeping.

“At the height of some of those crises, you feel like the only alternative is to disappear,” he said later.

Perks received highest praise for improving labor relations. After the 1985 wildcat strike, he made a deputy commissioner of Frank “Doc” Bowman, the only streets supervisor who had not participated in the walkout. It was the first of several moves Perks made to assert his authority. The most dramatic step was the January 1987 arrests of a nine-member street-cleaning crew on charges of flagrantly shirking their duties. Theft charges filed against the crew members were later dismissed in court.

“Harry was as uncomfortable as I was with those charges,” said Joseph Bloom, the city’s labor-relations chief, “but he was at an absolute loss. He had been trying to kick some butt around here, and management was abrogating its responsibility to the union.”

In the end, Bloom said, it was not Perks’ toughness but his honesty, compassion and flexibility that turned the tide with the union.

“He understood that to be an instrument for change, he had to have cooperation from the unions, and he just worked so hard at that relationship, he turned it around,” Bloom said. “If he had bad news to deliver, he called them in and delivered it eyeball to eyeball. There wasn’t a dishonest bone in his body, and he had a way of understanding the other guys’ position.”

A representative of the union was not available for comment.

Perks’ biggest disappointment, of course, was not solving the trash crisis, his stated mission. Critics give Mayor Goode most of the blame for losing the trash-to-steam battle in City Council, but it was Perks who took many of the lumps. With no reliable way to dispose of 3,200 tons of residential trash each day, he seemed to lurch from one emergency to the next.

Landfills barred their gates or raised their prices. The governor of South Carolina urged his citizens to send their trash to Philadelphia in retaliation for shipments of Philadelphia waste. The epic voyage of the Khian Sea, which is still wandering the globe with its unwanted cargo of Philadelphia incinerator ash, made the city a metaphor for the nation’s growing waste- disposal dilemma.

“I don’t think anyone appreciates how hard Harry worked just to keep us out of crisis,” said Nicholas DiBenedictis, who first dealt with Perks as the state’s top environmental regulator and later as head of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. “I talked to him a number of times when he was on the phone trying to figure out where the next day’s trash was going. Had he not been as good a crisis manager, we might have had a much bigger black mark against us.”

Though Perks regarded the demise of trash-to-steam as a “personal failure,” few blame him for failing to solve the city’s trash crisis. Instead, most people give him credit for sticking things out when others might have quit the job and returned to golf course.

Moreoever, Perks’ colleagues said they will miss the charm, wit and candor he brought to the button-down world of city government.

“That phone is the hotline,” he told an office visitor once, in a typical aside. “It only rings during a crisis – about twice a week.”

It was the same dark humor that enabled him to laugh off the wildcat strike that greeted his arrival, saying, “They didn’t even let me get my damn seat warm.”

“You can disagree with him, you can criticize his department,” said Deputy Mayor Marjorie H. Adler, “but there’s something the matter with you if you don’t like Harry Perks. He is an absolutely superb human being, a prince, and not in the Machiavellian sense.”

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