Unlike regular City laws, the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter dictates how we govern ourselves. It defines the powers of our Mayor, City Council, City departments, School District, Board of Education, and every other local entity.
It’s a law’s law, just like the state Constitution. Their significance is why Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians — the people — vote directly on Charter amendments and constitutional amendments through referendums we call “ballot questions.”
This time around, on November 8, Philadelphians will vote on two Charter amendments. Here’s what they are:
Charter amendment (ballot question) #1
The first Charter amendment would create a city Department of Aviation and cabinet-level position to oversee airports. It is uncontroversial and supported by Mayor Jim Kenney, airport officials, and the Philadelphia City Council, which unanimously approved the amendment.
Currently, airports are under the oversight of the Department of Commerce, which has a Division of Aviation to oversee the Philadelphia International Airport and Northeast Philadelphia Airport. This Division has an annual budget of $380 million — more than several city departments. Given the amount of resources dedicated to it, it makes sense to turn this Division into its own department.
There’s also a sense that creating a new department would remove existing bureaucratic red tape. Billy Penn reported outgoing CEO of the Philadelphia International Airport, Chellie Cameron, as saying, “A standalone department would be able to make decisions more efficiently and complete projects more easily. It would also give airports more discretion with their workforces and would give the airports a more prominent seat at the table for budget hearings and other important decisions.”
When you vote, the ballot question will be phrased this way:
“Should the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create the Department of Aviation and to transfer certain functions related to the operations of City airports from the other City agencies to the Department of Aviation?”
What this boils down to is legislators making referendums work for themselves, not the people.
Charter amendment #2
Applicants for City civil service positions — whether for an electronic technician or tree maintenance helper job — are judged by how many points they get on the civil service exam. Certain people, like veterans, receive preference points — essentially, extra credit — on that exam.
Currently, Philly CTE graduates receive minimal perks. But the least the City can do for its graduates is ensure they can get a city job. This is the thinking of City Councilmember At-Large Katherine Gilmore Richardson, who introduced the second charter amendment to give graduates of School District Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs preference points.
While it did pass Council, making it to the ballot, a few Councilmembers voted against it, including Councilmembers David Oh, Brian O’Neill, and Mike Driscoll. Their concern was for veterans, who contend that giving five preference points to students dilutes the 10 preference points they receive. Defending that position, Oh wrote, “A five-point advantage for graduates of Philadelphia career technical schools is a five-point disadvantage for everyone else.”
Gilmore Richardson and Oh were, for a few years, engaged in a very public fight over this in which Gilmore Richardson accused Oh of spreading disinformation.
What Oh’s short-sighted objection misses is the fact that having too many applicants for City jobs is not the problem we face. Philly, like other cities across the country, has a severe worker shortage, with one vacancy for about every seven jobs, according to this Inquirer article. If this amendment can encourage more applicants — while also better supporting young people — it seems like a win-win.
When you vote, the ballot question will be phrased this way:
“Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to provide for a preference in civil service examinations for qualified graduates of Career Technical Education programs in the School District of Philadelphia?”
What this is all about
We don’t trust Council or the General Assembly to change the Charter and state Constitution on their own. The magnitude of those documents demands that they be perched above the fray of usual legislative business. So, when the General Assembly or Council wants to amend the Charter or Constitution, they go through us first. In theory, this should have two effects:
- Allowing citizens to have direct input.
- Making the amendment process long and hard, creating time for public deliberation of the proposed amendment.
But is that what happens?
What’s really going on
With our distressing 23 percent voter turnout, it is a given that most Philadelphians just don’t vote. But what happens when folks do vote?
According to Muhlenberg College Political Science Professor Chris Borick, when faced with a “yes” or “no” choice on ballot questions, voters are inclined to choose “yes” by default. Academics call it an acquiescence bias or yes bias. It’s the tendency to agree with whatever’s put before you.
This explains why Pennsylvania voters have approved 68 of 73 ballot questions since 1967. Folks blindly agree to alter foundational government documents. This, of course, defeats the entire purpose of referendums.
The point was to have the people act as a check on the government. But that’s only possible if the people have their eyes open. Presently, we are asleep at the wheel with our foot firmly on the gas, glibly voting yes.
When the General Assembly or Council wants to amend the Charter or Constitution, they go through us first.
Opportunistic legislators take advantage of voter ignorance
Thanks to voter ignorance and abysmal civic participation, it’s actually easier to pass certain measures through ballot questions than through the usual legislative process.
Take, for example, statewide Republicans seeking to nix abortion rights via a constitutional amendment. First, why didn’t they go the usual route of simply passing a law removing the right? They couldn’t because Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, would never sign anti-abortion legislation. So, Republicans are going around the governor and introducing a constitutional amendment because it has to be approved by a referendum, which is all but guaranteed to pass, because it’s likely the people will blindly vote in favor of it.
What this boils down to is legislators making referendums work for themselves, not the people. That is so flagrantly backward. But what else can we expect with a civically unengaged populace too ignorant to hold elected officials accountable?
Thomas Jefferson put it plainly: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
Having reduced referendums to formalities, we have opened a Pandora’s box of legislative abuses. For now, however, the abortion issue is not immediate for our city or state; it won’t be on the ballot until 2023.
The choice is yours
Now you know the lay of the land — the importance of referendums and how voter ignorance neuters their effectiveness — you have a choice. You can vote yes or no on both ballot questions when (not if, nudge, nudge) you vote.
A note: You can vote in person on November 8 or by mail. If you vote by mail, the City Commissioners’ office must receive your ballot by November 8.
Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College. He is the former aide of two Philadelphia City Councilmembers and a Pennsylvania State Senator.
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