A GSSD Board for All

A suggestion for creating a more representative board

The Germantown Special Services District (GSSD) evokes a lot of different emotions among residents, business owners and property owners in Germantown. Based on the contentious meetings, you would think that a lot was at stake and that it had a difficult mission – that this was a Marshall Plan for Germantown and it was on the scale of rebuilding Western European economies after the end of World War II.

Its website explains that it is a “locally directed municipal authority established to supplement services already provided by the City of Philadelphia. The GSSD provides services and activities that improve the cleanliness and physical conditions of the district and improve public safety.” In short, it cleans up litter. This is not rocket science.

The one thing that everyone appears to agree on is that it needs a board that will provide adequate oversight and be transparent to the community. What is up for debate is whether it should be a Special Services District (SSD) or a Business Improvement District (BID), whether the board should be made up of a broad group of interests or just special interests such as property owners, and whether it can even be resurrected and reauthorized.

There is a lot of misinformation going around and like a game of telephone we all suffer from the innuendo that passes itself off for actual facts. For example, at almost every meeting, someone reasserts that some board members are being paid to be there but Section 4 of the bylaws is clear that board members serve without compensation. We need to stop wasting our time on easily debunked nonsense and focus on the few issues that matter. All these peripheral concerns can be addressed by a well governed board that is representative of the community it serves.

While the board does need to be held accountable by the community, it also needs to be able to operate and move forward. That can’t happen if every meeting is just relitigating the past.

The core issue that is foundational to a GSSD that can collect fees and use them to pick up litter is for the board to look like Germantown and for it to represent all voices. This means that it needs to be made up of residents, business owners and property owners. We sometimes hear from property owners that they pay the fee and so they should be the only ones who have a say on the board.

With the exception of a vacant property, no property owner is actually paying the fee. It is either passed along to the tenant as part of the rent, or in the case of some commercial properties advertised along the corridor, it is added on top of the rent in what it called a “triple net lease”. If property owners weren’t being disingenuous, it would seem that tenants who ultimately pay the fee should have significant board representation.

So how do we make sure that the board looks like Germantown? There are a few governing documents where board representation could be set forth. The Municipal Authorities Act merely says that board members should be taxpayers in the jurisdiction, or residents or business owners. The Act also says that the Articles of Incorporation can be amended “to increase or decrease the number of members of the board of the authority, to reapportion the representation on the board of the authority and to revise the terms of office of members”. While amending the Articles of Incorporation is simple enough to do, it could only be done by an authorized and functioning board.

In theory, board representation could be put in the reauthorizing statute that is before the City Council, however, city lawyers often rely on boilerplate legislation. A benefit of board representation being in the legislation itself is that it couldn’t be changed without a new law being passed by the Council. It isn’t quite the same as being written in stone, but it’s a close second. Perhaps we could lobby for a change to the draft legislation, but there is another option – the bylaws.

In the coming year, there will be a governance committee that will redraft the bylaws and they will have the opportunity to determine who should be on the board and with what percentage of representation. This is the sole issue we really need to keep our eye on because it could be done well or it could privilege special interests over the general public.

As we consider what board representation should look like, let’s take a look at two of the city’s other SSDs.

Sports Complex SSD
The Sports Complex Special Services District is governed by a Board of Directors that includes 20 members, seven of which have voting privileges. The voting members include four Community Directors elected by residential households and three Sports Venue Directors assigned by their respective venue management. It is financed entirely by the local sports teams.

Temple SSD
The Temple Special Services District (aka North Central Special Services District) has nine-member district board that will be comprised of five community representatives and four university representatives, with $500,000 in funding from Temple in the first year of operation.

What is clear with both of these examples is that being the source of funding is not the only criteria for getting to be on the board. These SSD’s understand that you need community buy-in for a well-functioning SSD and that community trust comes from being heard in how the SSD is run.

Over the coming weeks as the GSSD is hopefully reauthorized, let’s talk to the new board members. Let’s let them know we’re excited about a new direction for GSSD but also explain our concerns. They’re there to represent us and a constructive dialogue with ideas and not just critiques can empower the new board to take the actions we as a community want.

About Henry Sauter 1 Article
Henry has consulted for a Fortune 200 company, provided legal counsel to multinational tech and tobacco companies, run a politician's legislative office and solved big data problems for trade associations and nonprofits. He studied politics, religion and law but politely won't discuss them without prompting. Reading is a passion for him -- he goes through about 100 books each year across disciplines and subjects. He and his wife Lawanda Horton-Sauter live in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and together created Mission Incorporated. The business provides advisory and consulting services, specializing in grassroots fundraising for non-profits. FUN FACT: Both Lawanda & Henry share a background in Performing Arts – Lawanda as an actor/rapper & Theatre Historian, and Henry as a Cellist.

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