Past President, Future Leader

Former NLC President Brian O'Neill guides the city of brotherly love toward technological utopia.

by / November 30, 1999
When Philadelphia Councilman Brian O'Neill ended his one-year term as president of the National League of Cities (NLC) last December, it was only fitting that the theme of the event was a technology-oriented "future.nlc.kc."

After all, O'Neill's theme while he was among the NLC leadership was harnessing information technology. But O'Neill took the theme a step further, looking at policy surrounding local government's IT use.

"I always see government -- and, particularly, local government, since that's what I'm involved in -- as being several years behind the private sector in almost everything. I saw this topic as not only being very important, but one where we couldn't afford to be in our usual lag mode behind the private sector," O'Neill said. "It's just too critical that we keep up or at least close the time gap that is usually there.

"I also saw that most of our elected officials were from the pre-computer generations, not very familiar with technology and wanting to push it off to staff or consultants. What concerned me was that the policy has to be driven by the elected leaders of a city," he said. "They have to understand the technology and what it can do for them, or not do for them in different situations, before they can make those kind of decisions."

Formulating policy must come from the leadership, he said, not from appointed personnel who might feel uncomfortable in this area. "A lot of the stress was on getting [elected officials] familiar with it, not necessarily knowing how the computer runs but knowing what it can do for you. So it was where the real focus came in: trying to make local government elected leaders comfortable and familiar with developing policies around technology."

The president selects the NLC's annual theme, and O'Neill's choice marked a drastic change from previous years. The year prior to O'Neill's stint as president featured a theme of public safety, so he focused on how technology could make a difference in that arena. South Bay, Fla., Mayor Clarence Anthony, who succeeded O'Neill as NLC president had a theme of building a nation of communities and how workforce training on computers and technology is critical to the success of cities.

Anthony admitted shortly after becoming president that following O'Neill was a difficult task, and not just because South Bay has about 4,300 residents, and mega-city Philadelphia has more than 1.5 million inhabitants. After all, the Philadelphia official visited 38 of the 49 state associations during his tenure among the leadership. But Anthony was just as quick to note that O'Neill's focus on technology in 1998 couldn't be ignored in 1999, so he spent much of his term preaching technological diligence, notably in terms of remediating Y2K.

"I felt that we were tackling that issue for local government leaders at just the right time," O'Neill said, adding that his focus wasn't directed at the big cities with large budgets, but rather at a majority of the NLC's members -- smaller jurisdictions that don't necessarily have enough dollars to house an entire technology department. "It was just trying to get them to focus and understand that it can't wait until tomorrow."

That sentiment is shared by many, including Donald Borut, the NLC's executive director. "He made this a primary agenda item for our organization," Borut said of O'Neill.

"What concerned me was that the policy has to be driven by the elected leaders of a city. They have to understand the technology and what it can do for them, or not do for them in different situations, before they can make those kind of decisions." -- Philadelphia Councilman Brian O'Neill
Busting Crime

The idea of using technology in public safety had a special meaning for O'Neill in 1998. Not only was it his theme as president of the NLC, but it was also highlighted by his appointment of John Timoney as Philadelphia's police commissioner. Timoney was a deputy chief in New York City when COMPSTAT was created to map crime areas, and he brought a version of it to Philadelphia to reduce an escalating crime rate.

Philadelphia's version of COMPSTAT, according to O'Neill, the son of a Philadelphia police officer, is a frequent review of computer-mapped and computer-generated statistics. The program challenges commanders in different precincts to come up with strategies to deal with what they know are areas of high crime within their geographic areas of responsibility.

There is flexible authority with what police personnel can do, the councilman said. "For instance, there used to be a big bureaucracy
in the police department. If you wanted to have bike patrols because you felt that your area was different from the rest of the city and bicycles would work, you had to go through mountains of red tape and memos and everything else," he said. "Now, there is complete flexibility into how the precinct captain handles the crime problems in that precinct. But, on the other hand, there is a whole lot of responsibility if they don't lower the crime.

"Commissioner Timoney's focus [that] he's outlined from day one isn't to see how many 911 calls we can answer, but rather, how many 911 calls we can prevent," O'Neill continued. "We should be able to prevent them if we know where the activity is happening. Once you get a 911 call, the crime has already happened, and he's trying to create a more defensive posture. It's a whole different concept from what we're used to doing. It's really been effective, and he's done a lot of things in the real high-crime areas, the drug-infested areas of the city."

While Philadelphia will never be completely free of crime, O'Neill has noticed a marked difference compared to previous years, noting that the police have gotten great results by going into areas with masses of personnel and following through on an order that crime won't be tolerated, even if it meant completely closing streets.

In fact, while crime was the hottest campaign issue a year or two ago, O'Neill said Timoney's efforts have probably lowered it to third on the list behind education and taxes. That's just fine with O'Neill, who served as a juvenile probation officer, a law clerk in the Court of Common Pleas and an attorney in private practice prior to his election to the City Council in 1979. Now, he is excited about focusing on the new top two.

"The city has gotten a lot better than it has been. But we still have a long way to go," he said. "There's no question that this is a city that needs to be doing what it's been doing for the last few years for many, many more years and not just be a blip on the screen.

"I'm excited about the city right now and where it fits in with tourism, conventions and economic development," O'Neill said. "But we've still got some problems. One of them is a high wage tax, and it's dragging us down because our suburban counterparts, many of which have beautiful industrial parks and office buildings, have little or no wage taxes. There is a serious differential. The lowering of those taxes, I think, is part of a long-term strategy."

While the crime rate is falling, so
is the number of homeless people in the city. "You still see them," O'Neill said, "but it's a minor problem instead of the major problem it was a couple of years ago."

All Over the Map

While O'Neill is no longer constantly in the NLC spotlight like he was a few years ago, he is nowhere close to fading into the sunset. His biography reads like a what's what of government. First elected to the Philadelphia City Council 20 years ago, he has served as president of the NLC and the Pennsylvania League of Cities. He is currently president of the local unit of the American Cancer Society and serves on the board of his community YMCA. He chairs the Northeast Philadelphia Airport Advisory Board and serves on the executive boards of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Philadelphia International Airport Advisory Board.

As if all of that activity wasn't enough, O'Neill is in the third year of a four-year term on the board of Public Technology Inc., the technology arm of several local government organizations, including the NLC.

"Our focus on PTI and what it can do for the National League of Cities members has really catapulted in the last three years since the emphasis was placed in the organization on information technology," O'Neill said. "Yet, while PTI has been around for a long time and doing a lot of great things for government, this really put it on the map and then Y2K made that map even brighter."

O'Neill's future continues to look bright, as well. Last month, he was elected to serve a sixth four-year term on
the City Council, and he expects, just as he has done for years, to focus on

"One of the things that I think is significant is that he has stayed with it," said the NLC's Borut. "He recognizes himself not to be a technologist, and this is not his background. Yet, he recognizes the significance and has moved out to represent the interests of local government on the issue of technology."