1-15-2008 J.J. Murphy interview

As promised, City Administrator J.J. Murphy has graciously agreed to respond to some questions I wanted to throw at him. He didn’t have to, but he did. And he has.

When both good or bad things happen here in Wilkes-Barre, more often than not the media immediately gets after the Mayor or his spokeswoman/personal assistant, Bridget Giunta. And despite his high-profile position at City Hall and his overseeing of much of what we’d call Wilkes-Barre’s day-to-day operations, I think J.J. Murphy is still something of a mystery to the majority of the residents he proudly serves.

Before we get on with this, I’d like to recount our very first encounter.

J.J. was hired by the former mayor, and one of his responsibilities (as I saw it) was to smooth things over with the college kids that were repeatedly wronged by that former mayor as an election grew nearer and talk of those college kids registering to vote en masse got around.

As with everything Wilkes-Barre specific, I commented on such, and rarely did I have much good to say about J.J.’s efforts during that frustrating period. And as I grew increasingly agitated about the then deplorable state of this city, I think I sent too much criticism in the direction of J.J.

So, I volunteered to help out at the Mayor’s golf tournament up at Wilkes-Barre Municipal Golf Course back in 2003. Truth be told, I’d rather do just about anything than play golf, so I drove a golf cart piled with water and soda around the course all day long. Hey, I’ll support candidates I believe in, but golfing is just too much to ask of me. Cripes, what if somebody saw me?

Anyway, The Mayor of East End and I arrived at this one green where then candidate Tom Leighton and his entourage were putting out. And up walks this guy unknown to me with his hand extended and with a big smile on his face as he said, “Soooooooooo, you’re Mark Cour.” I replied, “And you are?“ That guy was none other than J.J. Murphy. He asked me if we could have a few running conversations about the state of the city, but more specifically, about the future of the city. And I happily agreed to that.

As Wilkes-Barre’s one-and-only political blogger at that time, I was used to being cursed at, shouted at, chased through the streets, called every name in the book and challenged to a few donnybrooks of the physical variety. But never did anyone who’s stones I had thoroughly busted on these pages approach me in the openly friendly manner that J.J. did. And this was in spite of the fact that he later divulged that he felt some of my criticisms of him and his performance were patently unfair, and some even stung. Needless to say, I was impressed. And remember your history, what I was doing to city officials at that time--blogging--was unprecedented being a new phenomenon and all, so it took a real class act to be the first to approach me in a non-combative manner.

I’m not completely sure how he feels about our relationship since then, but, rightly or wrongly, I consider him a personal friend, but I know he‘s a good friend to Wilkes-Barre. Professionally, I think he’s been very, very cool under pressure during some of Wilkes-Barre’s most turbulent days, which belies his military search-and-rescue background. And I also feel that Wilkes-Barre is a much better place simply by having him aboard. We keep saying we want the out-migration to end. We keep saying we want to keep the best and brightest right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

So, with that in mind, meet J.J. Murphy, one of Northeastern Pennsylvania‘s best and brightest.

Please try to provide as many details and depth as are currently allowable.

And how about a quick introductory bio, as well as how you came to be employed by the City of Wilkes-Barre.

For those who do not know me, I was born and raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia. My father is a retired Philadelphia police officer and my mother was a legal secretary. I came to Wilkes-Barre in 1989 to attend King’s College. As a senior at King’s I obtained an internship in the City Clerk’s Office and I cultivated many lasting friendships from that experience. I really enjoyed the area and decided to return to go to graduate school at Marywood for a degree in Public Administration. In 1997 I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force after completing two years in the Wilkes University Reserved Officer’s Training Corps while I was attending graduate school.

My Air Force career took me around the country and afforded me the opportunity to serve with and under some of this country’s greatest leaders.

In September of 2002 I separated from active-duty and became an active member of the Air Force Reserves. My family and I came back to Wilkes-Barre and I was hired as the Deputy Administrator. Five months later I was re-called to active-duty and went back to Virginia to serve in the search and rescue field again.

When Tom Leighton won his election he asked me if I would consider applying for the City Administrator post. I was honored and went through the process and was selected.

I am married to my college-sweetheart Colleen and we have four beautiful girls.

1. With escalating employee compensation devouring the majority of the city’s incoming revenues, do you envision a privatization of some city-supplied services at some later date?

This administration has worked very hard to evaluate all city services and, city positions. And we put a plan in place to offer retirement incentives to try to get a good deal of employees to retire. We have only rehired positions that were income generating or absolutely necessary. Outside of the Police Department, we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars on overtime in the other three city unions. I do not ever think we will be in a position to privatize services.

2. When will the design and financing of the oft-promised Coal Street Park remake be made available to the public, as well as a start and completion date?

Just last week, City Council passed the resolution approving the construction manager for the project. The financing has been finalized and the project should be completed in the next 18 months.

3. Is there a start-completion date set for the proposed reworking of Coal Street, and it’s linkup with Union Street in downtown Wilkes-Barre?

Technically, PennDot has started that project but it will take approximately 3 years to complete construction.

4. To put it bluntly, what is the holdup with the new parking garage project being constructed behind Provincial Towers?

You put something bluntly…Imagine that!!! Again, there was a minor delay over the last couple of weeks. The project is back on track and they are shooting for a December completion date. Will there be inconveniences in the meantime? Absolutely, but the Mayor has been steadfast in making sure we delivered the safest, best-constructed, state-of-the-art facility for this community. This facility in itself will save jobs, and most likely will bring in more businesses to the area.

5. When will the Murray Complex on Pennsylvania Avenue be transformed into what the private developer promised it would be? He received the creative tax breaks he was looking for from the County. So, when can we expect to see some progress on that project?

The developer you are speaking about is finalizing funding for his project. Let me say this, I would love to see over $20 million invested into that complex. Many different ideas have been talked about to address his concerns, but as of today, I do not know when that project will start.

6. WIFI--Where are we on that? Is the WIFI system 100% up and running? Can we subscribe? Where can we go for more information?

I am proud to say that the city-wide deployment by Frontier is complete. To date, Wilkes-Barre is one of the most technological advanced communities in Pennsylvania. Here is what you can find on Wirefree Wilkes-Barre’s website: The consumer segment of the city-wide WiFi network is managed by Frontier Communications Inc. A day pass, monthly service, or even pre-paid wireless data cards are available from Frontier for consumer use. To learn more about the city-wide WiFi network, including how to sign on, please go to www.frontiermobile.com. For Technical support or help with getting connected, call Frontier Technical Support at (800) 469-6519.

7. What is the status of the Riverfront project? Is it behind schedule? Is it ahead of schedule? When can we expect to use those new amenities? And as a follow-up, who will be responsible for the upkeep of those facilities? The City, or the County?

The Riverfront project is a County project. We have partnered with them and have granted them the proper land-use clearances. My understanding is that the county will maintain the property when it is completed. The good news is that we are told that this amazing project is actually ahead of schedule and may be completed by the end of 2008.

8. What is your opinion of the newest media--the internet--and it’s affect on local politics? And in particular, local political bloggers.

First off, let me say that I welcome various opinions on how we are serving the citizens of Wilkes-Barre. We now live in a society that wants information immediately, and through many mediums, the public can receive news coverage and up-to-date pictures from cell phones and over the internet. The internet has also closed the gap between the public and government. The public now has new forums to offer opinions and criticisms to their elected officials.

As the City Administrator, I welcome the input of the public and encourage constructive criticism, whether it be in person or via the internet. I for one know that I have made mistakes, and having someone pointing them out constructively is never a problem for me. When it is a problem is when individuals create websites with no other purpose than what seems to be 7-day websites that do nothing but to slander good people. Oftentimes, these websites have limited life expectancies and fold when the creators move on when their own actions become a more serious problem. We now live in a society that wants information immediately, and in many mediums, they can receive news coverage and up to date pictures from cell phones.

Here is where the problem lays. An uninformed blogger, or a vindictive blogger, can hurt someone without ever having to being held accountable. So because of that, many public officials, or government employees are wary of sharing information. It is a real balancing act that I do not have a good answer for at this time.

Overall, I like that we have a more informed public. Hopefully someday, that will translate into higher voter turnouts.

9. Does the local media’s unrelenting habit of sowing the flames of political discontent make it harder for you and yours to do your jobs? Also, do you believe it to be a bit disingenuous for some to continually call themselves activists, watchdogs and what have you despite the fact that they run for office at nearly every turn?

Leadership, especially government leadership, comes with knowing that you are living in a fishbowl. I think it is actually great when citizens become informed and then decide to get involved. However, some people cross the line when the try to hurt people without knowing all of the facts, or even worse, deliberately lying.

Was For example, during the election this fall, was it fair for Ms. Stets to promise the residents of Wilkes-Barre that she would bring in the United States Coast Guard to fight the drug dealers? Should the media have taken her to task? I think so, but this is not always what happens. I actually respect those who take the time to become more informed and want to participate in government.

10. What would you say to a resident who thinks the salaries at City Hall are too high?

To be fair, I will not speak for anyone else but myself on this question. I would ask said resident what they believe a fair rate to be. Then, I would also make them aware of my job duties. For example, the fact that I am conducting city business everyday, sometimes as many as 16 hours a day, and I would give them my background (military, leadership courses, professional organizations, Master’s Degree).

I would make them aware that in the private sector, I could compete for $50,000 more than what I make now, and in fact have turned down at least one job offer for $180,000 per year. If you want somebody who will do this job at any price you will get what you pay for. Right now, you have a guy who is trying to put his heart and soul into turning this community around. I will let my record, and the record of the senior leaders who have all worked hard for the Leighton Administration stand for itself.

11. How would you answer the following question: Why should I live in or invest in Wilkes-Barre?

The City of Wilkes-Barre is at a crucial point right now.

First, we are in the middle of a true economic and social rebirth of the city. We are trying to clean up our city from within. We have demolished over 100 properties and, if we had the money, could clean up countless more. The establishment of the Community Action Team has put landlord and property owners on notice that filth will not be tolerated.

We have put up the first two phases of our streetlights and the third will be started in the near future. The new downtown movie theatre has brought over 600,000 visitors to our downtown and we expect even more as retail expands. The catalyst for even more development will be the completion of the intermodal garage in late December 2008.

And if that were not enough, if we obtain the DCED grant that we applied for, We also hope to use the gaming funds for which we applied through DCED to will allow us to deploy more than 500 additional security cameras throughout our downtown, in all of our neighborhood parks, and in areas that the police deem necessary. We plan on taking full advantage of the technological advancements we have put into place with our wireless initiative.

Secondly, we are embarking on a period of change in County government that is very important for our future. The new leaders at the county level can not leave the City of Wilkes-Barre standing alone. Over the last 4 years, Mayor Leighton has worked hard to develop a spirit of cooperation that has not been seen in a long time. City Council and this administration have forged ahead with a very cooperative and progressive agenda. The city and county have taken turns to be there for each other when needed (floods, winter storms, and equipment needs - just to name a few). Our staffs work on grants and many other projects jointly. We need to keep this momentum in order to make this a place that can competitively attract new businesses.

12. What has been your proudest accomplishment while working for the City?

When I sat down with Tom Leighton four years ago, in December 2003, and he shared his vision of what he wanted his administration to accomplish, I knew that I wanted to be a part of the rebirth. So when I look at the long list of accomplishments it is very difficult for me to select just one of which I am most proud;: the sale of the Call Center, our financial turnaround, the Healing Field, Movies 14, other downtown development, Community Action Team, 3 new fire engines, a new firehouse, two new ambulances, countless new police cruisers, 21 new police officers, the streetlights, more than 100 demolished eyesores, infrastructure improvements, the free Beach Boys concert, the wireless initiative. and so many other great things it is extremely hard to pick the one I am most proud.

I believe we have raised the bar as far as expectations and in the end, we have given people hope. Can we do more? Absolutely! And with four more years with this team in place I know we will give the residents even more than completed projects, we will give them a place they are proud to call home.

13. Your biggest disappointment?

My biggest disappointment has been not communicating with city employees better and letting them know how impressed I am with their efforts. We could never pay our police or firemen what they deserve. I try to do the best I can, but I do not tell them enough that they are the backbones to a safe community. When the weather is so bad that you dread the run from your car into work, the members of the Teamsters are outside cleaning up this city. Since this administration took office, gone are the days that trash or recycling is on the street for days at a time. The members of Local 1310 are the dedicated workers in our Health Department and in City Hall. Many of these people have college degrees and could make a lot more money if they worked in the private sector. Instead, they track down grants, inspect restaurants and properties, provide free flu shots, make it easier for residents to work with City Hall and provide service to their community.

All in all, many of these public servants are working hard everyday for the greater good of this community. I wish I took more time out of my day to let every one of them know that I respect and admire them.

14. Why Wilkes-Barre? Why did you choose to raise your family here?

My wife and I met and were married here in Wilkes-Barre. We have lived in California and Virginia and, in 2002, decided to leave the active-duty Air Force. While we enjoyed the weather in Santa Barbara, CA, and the southern hospitality of Virginia, we wanted to raise our family in a good, solid, hard working family oriented community. Having grown up in a neighborhood in Philadelphia that reminded me of Wilkes-Barre, a place where the neighbors would watch over your kids and you would do the same for them. A neighborhood where the police were respected and teachers were disciplinarians when needed but encouraged kids to seek out better alternatives. To me, the saying “the valley with a heart” is more then a slogan, it is how the majority of the people here live. I want my girls to grow up knowing that it is our responsibility to help make this area a better place. I am confident we made the right decision, and I look forward to working hard for the next four years in making Wilkes-Barre a better place for all of us.

15. Would you care to share with us the details of the Djibouti thing?

As some of your readers know, I am an active reservist in the United State Air Force. I was recently promoted to Major and, although I was on active-duty for more than 6 years, and was previously mobilized as a reservist for 13 months in February 2002, I have never deployed to a combat area overseas. This is about to change.

My unit commander has asked me to fill a roll as a search and rescue controller in Djibouti, Africa for a 6-month tour starting in March of this year. I have talked it over with my family and the Mayor, and have in fact said yes. I look forward to serving on a U.S. Marine base in a joint billet and working along side some of America’s bravest men and women. The reaction by this patriotic community has been overwhelming thus far. I know some people are confused about why I would want to go overseas and help in this global war. Maybe the great Thomas Payne said it best when he said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day that my child may have peace.”


Dude, thanks for your time. While many say city officials are not accessible, you took the time necessary to dispel that silly notion.

Personally, I appreciate the sacrifices you make for this country, and it should be noted that as a military wife, your better-half does as well, if not more.

And with most of Eastern Africa being a hotbed of religious extremism as well as abject chaos in a governmental vacuum, you need to keep your eyes open and your head down while exploring Djibouti.

And get me a few of those Somali pirates, will you?


And if anyone has any follow-up questions, send them along and I’ll fire them off to Mr. Murphy. I have a few of my own.

‘Til next time.