Did you see how your City Council spent last Thursday? Not considering an innovative plan for investing in equitable growth, as in Charlotte, North Carolina. Not debating a housing-first approach to homelessness, as in Houston. Not entertaining reforms to its own governance, as in Portland. Not hearing from, say, a public safety official from New York City, where Mayor Adams’ reinstitution of targeted Broken Windows policing has resulted in the arrest of over 1,100 subway turnstile jumpers who had open warrants for offenses like gun possession and felony assault.
No, your Council spent the day overrun by passionate public comment regarding a resolution on … the Israeli/Hamas war. Co-introduced by Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Mike Driscoll, the resolution, which ultimately passed unanimously, “condemns the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel and call(s) for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.”
The public comments, though, quickly got contentious; the loudest voices came from pro-Palestinian speakers in opposition to the resolution, many of whom were escorted out of the proceedings by security. Councilmember Curtis Jones, who is Muslim and wrestled with the resolution before voting for it, called it the most difficult day of his Council tenure.
Let’s be clear here. However you feel about the Israeli/Hamas war, the fact that Council essentially lost a day to it is nothing short of theft of services, because, last Thursday, at least, your City Council didn’t govern your city.
Can Council get out of Parker’s way?
The actual management of a city is hard, and it’s much easier to opine — pundit-like, like yours truly — on issues that don’t pertain to the carrying out of your sworn oath. Do we really need to hear from Kendra Brooks on the Middle East conflagration? “I call on American leaders, including President Biden, to support an immediate ceasefire and to send swift humanitarian assistance to save lives in Gaza,” she tweeted. “As a practitioner of restorative justice, I believe in addressing the root causes of violence wherever it occurs. Without an end to apartheid and peace for Palestinians, the cycle of trauma will always continue.”
Most signs point to Parker recommitting to practical problem-solving. But how much might that matter if Council stubbornly remains Council as we’ve known it?
Let’s resist the urge to call out the Councilmember on the ahistoric sloganeering, and let’s stipulate that Brooks has every right to broadcast what passes these days for informed opinion on any subject she wants. But that doesn’t make it the right thing to do for those whose interests she’s pledged to represent. It’s just talk, when citizens have elected her to act for them. Does she think Joe Biden is going to see her tweet and suddenly temper his support for Israel? In other words, in politics, our leadership can increasingly be divided into two camps: workhorse and showhorse. The workhorse avoids the spotlight, gets educated, and deploys carefully honed political skill to get actual shit done. The showhorse gravitates to Twitter or the nearest open mic, and panders.
It’s not just Brooks. Historically, in its resolution-mania — which values the symbolic over the substantive — Council has tended toward the showhorse model. Remember in 2007, when Council approved a ballot question asking voters to speak out against the war in Iraq — a statement that now lives in our city’s constitution despite having nothing to do with its governance? In fact, its Middle East pablum last week wasn’t even Council’s only resolution; in America’s most impoverished big city, with anemic job growth and increasing lawlessness, it also called for the renaming of a street to honor a well-known North Philly fried shrimp retailer.
All this raises an important issue. We have a mayor-to-be who is admirably floating new ideas. Cherelle Parker has talked about replacing the warrior mentality of policing with a well-documented guardian approach; she’s embraced proactive, de facto broken windows policing (like Adams in New York); supported some version of year-round schooling, and has expressed support for bringing back the long-dormant tax plan pushed by Paul Levy and developer Jerry Sweeney that would increase taxes on commercial properties while lowering our job-killing wage tax — in effect, taxing what can’t up and move, as pro-growth cities tend to do.
The point is, most signs point to Parker recommitting to practical problem-solving; her instinct, it seems, is at the very least not to preside over the third term of the Kenney administration. But how much might that matter if Council — her partner in governing — stubbornly remains Council as we’ve known it, addicted to talk over action, to transactionalism over reform?
Back in ’82, then-Mayor Bill Green famously dubbed City Council “the worst legislative body in the free world.” While some iterations of Council since have been more engaged and ambitious than during Green’s tenure, and some Council members have tried to lead rather than react, the whole of the institution remains an impediment to progress. “Ask yourself this,” one insider wisely quipped to me a few years ago. “How many Councilmembers would you want on your board of directors?” Fact is, you don’t want a Council with a lot of members on it for whom the gig might just be the best one they’ll ever have.
Perhaps more troubling than Council’s performative nature is its doubling down on mere transactionalism as a guiding governing principle. It doesn’t bode well that Kenyatta Johnson, the body’s most proficient practitioner of the scourge that is councilmanic prerogative, is reported to have lined up the votes necessary to become the body’s president come January.
Put aside the fact that he’s twice been charged, and ultimately acquitted, of public corruption. (Though, if I were on Council, that fact alone would make me wonder just who is listening to any conversation I have with Johnson, given the relentlessness of federal prosecutors who don’t like to lose.) Beyond that, like current Council President Darrell Clarke, Johnson’s use of his deity-like powers over land development issues in his District not only impedes progress, it fuels the perception that we’re not one city — we’re really 10 different cities, each with its own de facto mayor, making deals and doling out land and perks, the common good of 1.6 million Philadelphians be damned.
There are many illustrations of this phenomenon, but let’s zero in on one. For a freakin’ decade, the good citizens in the proximity of Washington Avenue in South Philly have tried their damndest to make that roadway safer. Johnson, through his councilmanic prerogative powers, which reside nowhere in law, has ultimately stood in their way. As Sean Blanda wrote for The Citizen last year, “It’s a story of one man cynically stopping the hard work and the frustrating-but-fair compromise thoughtfully navigated by a community of city workers, parents, students, volunteers, and activists.”
Blanda’s devastating account is just one example of the way in which Johnson lines up against actual democracy. And now the body will be his? What hope do we have for reform then?
Council, reform thyself?
There are things we can do to return your City Council to your control, but most would require its own members adhering to a Council, Reform Thyself ethos. Those would include, as I’ve suggested, setting aside the tradition that only a district councilmember be considered to serve as Council President. As former Mayor John Street has long argued, let’s put the Council President on the same footing as the Mayor — accountable to all 1.6 million of us.
It’s not like there’s not an able at-large candidate already on Council. While the body spent all that time crafting its do-nothing Israel/Hamas resolution, Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson was calling for hearings into the School District’s mystifying practice of “leveling” — the moving of teachers around the district a month into the school year, based on school enrollment numbers. By all accounts, she treats colleagues with respect, and is instantaneously forthright with them about what she will and will not do. When politics prevents her from taking a stand, she says so. When an issue is worth spending political capital on, she says so.
“Ask yourself this,” one insider wisely quipped to me a few years ago. “How many Councilmembers would you want on your board of directors?”
And she’s a millennial, someone who just might bring a new mindset to a job that has in recent years been all about protecting an ineffectual status quo. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally get away from different zoning rules in different districts promulgated by a Council president who believes in the efficacy of governance by balkanization? Alas, it looks like that’s a nonstarter. Richardson has remained mum and Johnson has apparently been cashing in chits and collecting votes, as is his right.
There are other fixes — no less pie in the sky here in Moscow on the Delaware, where the mere thought of change runs afoul of Politburo orthodoxy. But let’s look at them nonetheless.
For one, we could do something about the sweet deal your public servants receive on your dime. Sure, there are the salaries in excess of 130k per year, but also the 20-some odd weeks off, not to mention the city-provided car. (Which prompts memories of then-Councilmember Fran Rizzo unwittingly proving journalist Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe in politics — it’s when a politician accidentally tells the truth —by lamenting that “I wouldn’t take my car into some of these neighborhoods” when then-Mayor Michael Nutter was asking him and his colleagues to do just that.)
How can we right that imbalance? Well, what about aligning our councilmembers’ 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 an 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?” How cool would that be? Your Councilperson having to hit agreed upon goals, just like people who work for a living in the real world?
Or we could borrow from the playbook in Portland, Oregon, where progressivism run amok has given way to real political reform. Earlier this year, voters backed a ballot measure that strengthens the power of the mayor, adopts ranked-choice voting, more than doubles the number of City Council members, and creates a series of citizen-led commissions to implement real change. My favorite: A five-person salary commission will determine how much the mayor, the city auditor and all council members should be paid annually.
We rightfully wring our hands all the time about democracy crumbling in Washington, D.C., and in the rise of global autocracy. But here at home we hardly notice the lack of incentive for our elected leaders to actually work for us. When you can effectively become mayor based on the vote of 27 percent of registered voters of one party, and when a Council President — one man — can stand in the way of deals that might benefit all of the city, democracy in your backyard is imperiled, too.
If Council doesn’t bring the same energy for change that Cherelle Parker appears to be contemplating, what are the chances that our death by a thousand cuts public narrative turns around?
The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.
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