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Former Philadelphia mayor speaks about Athenian Oath, public service at Maxwell School

Prince Dudley | Staff Photographer

Former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter stressed the importance of ethics and integrity in public service as part of Tanner Lecture Series at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

The Athenian Oath is etched into the walls of Maxwell Hall, behind a statue of George Washington. For Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, the oath is so important that it was printed on the back of his business cards when he was mayor.

“The Athenian Oath has always been my guiding star to be a good public servant,” Nutter said.

Nutter spoke about the Athenian Oath and his career as a public servant as part of the Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship and Public Responsibility on Friday. The lecture series, organized by the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, hosts speakers that have been leaders in public service. Nutter, who has served as a Philadelphia city councilman for 14 years and mayor for eight years, has also led the United States Conference of Mayors and is a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Nutter attributes his success as a leader to the Athenian Oath, a code recited by the citizens of Athens more than 2,000 years ago. The oath highlights civil leaders’ responsibility to their city.

The last line of the oath, which dares leaders to leave their city greater and more beautiful than it was given to them, is the most important line for public officials, he said.

“I think that it is a charge to every person who runs for a public office,” Nutter added.

As a member of Philadelphia’s City Council between 1992 and 2006, Nutter was responsible for ethics reform, campaign finance reform and smoke-free workplace legislation. Despite his achievements as a councilmember, he said media and his own staff discouraged him from running for mayor.

“My own polls told me that I would be last in a five-way race no matter who I ran against,” he recalled.

Nutter decided to run for office anyway — and won with 83 percent of the vote in Philadelphia’s 2007 mayoral election.

Elected just as the 2008 financial crisis was beginning, Nutter said he was forced to make difficult and unpopular decisions to balance Philadelphia’s $1 billion budget deficit. Every city department and agency had to take a budget cut, including the city’s library department, he said.

“When I announced that we had to close 11 libraries, people went berserk,” Nutter said.

The Philadelphia City Council filed a lawsuit against Nutter that challenged his authority to close the libraries, and preliminary injunctions were filed that prevented Nutter from approving the closures. After a second review, the library department was able to make the budget cuts without closing the libraries.

Nutter said people in Philadelphia still hold resentment toward him for his decision even though the libraries were never closed. He added that it was the worst decision he made in his 24 years of public service.

Public service is not a business for people who want to be loved and admired every day, Nutter said. He added that public servants have to make the necessary decisions that people may not like. As mayor, Nutter was constantly being criticized for his decisions no matter which side of the argument he took.

Even when decisions are difficult, Nutter said public servants must work with consistency in their leadership and integrity in their decision making.

“That’s really what the Athenian Oath is about,” he said.

Nutter said he believes issues of integrity in American politics are more important now than they have ever been before. The divisiveness in the federal government is not good for American democracy. He added that local level government is the only level of government actually working.

Despite government’s constant debate and hypocrisy, Nutter said public service is his highest calling.

“Public service is the daily opportunity to have an impact on people’s lives,” Nutter said. “There is nothing like the feeling of knowing that someone benefited from you or your department.”

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