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Will Mayor Cherelle Parker really make Philadelphia the “cleanest, greenest big city in the nation,” as she’s vowed countless times over the past year? Or at least make it noticeably cleaner and greener than it is now?
Community activists and local experts say they fervently hope so, given the illegal dumping and litter that plague many neighborhoods, as well as historically low recycling rates and persistent problems with abandoned vehicles, blighted lots, potholes, and graffiti.
They say they’re encouraged by the prominence she’s given these issues — “Clean and Green” is the second priority in her 100-Day Action Plan, after public safety. They’re also pleased to see her emphasize collaboration with community groups and businesses, and promise to use data to track the success of the city’s efforts.
“I’m really glad that the mayor has put this back on the agenda after [Mayor] Kenney took it off,” said Maurice Sampson, a Parker transition team member who started the city’s recycling program in the 1980s and serves on the Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee.
But some said they were deeply disappointed when Parker announced that Kenney’s Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams would head her new Office of Clean and Green Initiatives, given the Streets Department’s inability to handle the trash problem during his tenure.
“I am totally dismayed that Carlton Williams has been at the head of anything,” said Aminata Sandra Calhoun, a West Philly resident who leads cleanups through the Centennial Parkside CDC. “If he was the person [to lead], we would not be seeing today — in 2024 — what we are seeing. It is horrendous in socially, economically challenged communities. These are the communities that I’m cleaning Monday through Friday, and it hasn’t reduced.”
Others are more sanguine, saying that Williams is not to blame for the prior administration’s passivity, his department’s finite resources, the city’s outdated waste management systems, the effects of the pandemic and other challenges.
Williams and his eventual successor at the Streets Department may be able to make a real impact, they say — if the mayor demands it and provides them with the support they will need.
The city declined to make Williams available for an interview or provide comment for this article.
Carlton Williams, Mayor Parker’s pick to lead her Clean and Green Initiative, speaks at a news conference in August 2023. (6ABC)
An early phenom, then the “wrong job”
Williams has spent most of his career with the city, working initially for the Fairmount Park Commission, the Recreation Department and then Streets. As a deputy commissioner, he oversaw trash collection, expanded recycling programs, helped introduce BigBelly street receptacles, and started the annual Philly Spring Cleanup.
“I don’t have many like Carlton,” then-deputy mayor Rina Cutler gushed in 2012, when Williams won the first-ever Richardson Dilworth Award for Distinguished Public Service. “He goes so well beyond what people’s expectations are… It’s phenomenal to watch him in action.”
In 2012, Mayor Michael Nutter appointed Williams commissioner of Licenses and Inspections, which oversees building code enforcement, despite his lack of experience with construction. The following year, the city saw one of its worst construction disasters in recent history, when a Market Street building being demolished fell onto a Salvation Army thrift store next door, killing six people and injuring 14 others.
L&I came under intense scrutiny for not doing more to monitor demolitions and prevent accidents. Reports of botched or missing building inspections accumulated over the next two years, and City Controller Alan Butkovitz called for Williams’ dismissal.