So, very early on in this new City Council session, I started to experience the oddest sensation. It was vaguely familiar…akin to a thrill running up the leg, to pay homage to Philly homeboy Chris Matthews. What…was…this? It couldn’t be what it felt like, could it? I couldn’t be feeling encouraged, could I? About the body that former Mayor Bill Green once called the “worst legislative body in the free world”? A legislature I had excoriated again and again for its dimwittedness, shortsightedness and allergy to transparency?
Miracles do happen. Okay, okay, that may be a little strong. After all, in the first weeks of the new Council session, we heard the usual litany of bad news about what has long been our embarrassing group of statesmen. That our Council’s salaries are the nation’s third highest, at a cool $132,789, and the average tenure of our elected representative is 8.2 years, also third longest. And we learned that 12 of our 17 Council members, including four of our five newcomers this time around, use city vehicles, a pretty cushy perk for such a well-paid job that isn’t in session 23 weeks a year.
There are signs of activist legislating on Council. Helen Gym called for hearings that would delve into School District finances and Derek Green argued for floating social impact bonds to help fund vital programs. Even Council President Darrell Clarke joined Mayor Kenney in urging the building trades to become more diverse.
But when this session started, there were suddenly some encouraging signs. I’ve already touched on the lofty goals of freshman Allan Domb. There was also fellow freshman Helen Gym, who called for hearings that would delve into School District finances and introduced a bill that would require companies to reinvest tax breaks into real job creation. There was another freshman, Derek Green, who called for social impact bonds to help fund public programs, an innovative public/private partnership in which governments don’t pay until specific policy goals are met. And there was even Council President Darrell Clarke joining Mayor Kenney in urging the building trades to become more diverse.
All of this type of activist legislating flies in the face of City Council’s recent history. It’s long been a body more interested in the nuts and bolts of constituent service than in ambitiously solving systemic problems. The rule in City Council has been that our legislators moonlight as glorified caseworkers. You have a noisy neighbor? A streetlight out? Call Council. There’s nothing wrong with constituent service, of course, unless and until it serves as a disincentive for elected officials to do the harder work of actually governing. In a corrupt, one-party town, you can get reelected again and again by fixing potholes. (Which explains many Councilpersons’ original opposition to the city’s 311 customer service line; it encroached on Council’s electoral gravy train turf).
But maybe this is a new day for Council. There’s some new blood, and Council President Clarke appears liberated by the absence of arch-nemesis Mayor Michael Nutter. Maybe substance is about to make a comeback.
But why take a chance? Let’s make sure this sudden burst of ambition isn’t an anomaly. Here’s a modest proposal: Align our Council members’ salaries to the mission of governing by taking a page from what has improved management in corporate America—pay for performance.
This idea was first advanced a couple of years ago by Sheila Bair, the former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and one of the few heroes of the 2008 Great Recession. Bair proposed we hold half of each Congressperson’s salary in Treasury bonds, to be released upon three separate triggers: One-third when the nation hit agreed-upon labor participation rate. Another third tied to the rate of GDP growth. The release of the final third of salary would be determined by the citizens themselves. “Shareholders get to have an advisory vote on executive compensation,” she wrote in Fortune magazine. “Why not taxpayers too?”
Let’s make sure this sudden burst of ambition isn’t an anomaly. Here’s a modest proposal: Align our Council members’ salaries to the mission of governing by taking a page from what has improved management in corporate America—pay for performance.
A system like this would be akin to saying to Darrell Clarke, et al: You want to keep your insider deals and perks? The gift job to Wilson Goode, the 23 weeks off, the cars? Fine. In exchange, you’ve got to acknowledge that the era of political welfare is over. It’s time for you to get off the dole. If you believe in merit, you shouldn’t have any problem with half of your salary tied to performance metrics. Imagine: We hold back $66,394.50 of each Councilmember’s salary, only releasing it when, say, the city hits a couple of goals: A drop in the poverty rate, for example, and an uptick in employment. The final $22,131.50 would be triggered by a citizen “shareholder” vote. If we’re happy with your performance, you’ll make that scratch.
Hey Council members, he asked, tongue firmly in cheek…Who among you would get behind an idea like this?
Header Photo by Kyle Ferino