Guest Commentary: A Democracy Agenda for Philadelphia

Mayoral and Council candidates must vow to strengthen our local democracy — and make sure government works for the people. Committee of Seventy’s chief policy officer lays out with what they should do

Guest Commentary: A Democracy Agenda for Philadelphia

Mayoral and Council candidates must vow to strengthen our local democracy — and make sure government works for the people. Committee of Seventy’s chief policy officer lays out with what they should do

American democracy began in Philadelphia, but nearly 250 years later, we’re at a critical juncture. In Harrisburg and across the Commonwealth, election integrity has become a political flashpoint due to the pervasive spread of falsehoods that have damaged trust in election officials and the process itself. And across Philadelphia, the day-to-day strain and quality-of-life problems that have long been endured in some of our communities worsened during the pandemic, leaving many residents struggling to stay housed, healthy and safe.

A more democratic and accountable government in City Hall is essential to addressing these issues and to deliver the services and opportunities so urgently needed.

But this will only happen when, at all times: elected officials are setting priorities and making policies for the people and not for special interests. Scarce public resources are protected from waste, fraud and abuse. The city workforce and its leadership are reflective of Philadelphia and firing on all cylinders. And when, from budgets to land use to elections, communities have a real say in the key decisions shaping their future.

The following reform agenda released by the Committee of Seventy, Philadelphia’s nonpartisan advocate for better government since 1904, lists the actions our next Mayor and City Council can take to cultivate a more vibrant local democracy and build a more accountable government.

There are no cure-alls for the challenges we face, but taken together, we believe these steps are essential to City Hall reinvigorating itself to meet the moment. Let us know what you think at [email protected].

Transparent and accountable government

Protect the Chief Integrity Officer and ethics rules

The Chief Integrity Officer is a critical position under the Mayor dedicated to promoting ethical behavior across a city government with more than 25,000 employees. The next Mayor must retain this office and reissue the various executive orders dictating rules around accepting gifts, outside employment, nepotism, whistleblower protections, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Fully fund the Ethics Board

The Philadelphia Ethics Board is responsible for administering and enforcing numerous public-integrity laws related to campaign finance, financial and lobbying disclosure, conflicts of interest, gifts and political activity. The next Mayor must boost annual ethics funding to at least $1.5 million to ensure thorough training of city personnel and enforcement of our integrity laws.

Extend pay-to-play rules to land-use matters

City Council should limit campaign contributions to City officials and candidates from individuals and businesses with matters before the City, including land sales and zoning legislation. This will mitigate the real and perceived ethical risks in these relationships. Contributions would be capped for a period of 12 months before and after a given matter is voted on.

Curb councilmanic prerogative

City Council should curtail its block-by-block regulation of sidewalk vendors and cafes, newsstands and news racks, streeteries, food trucks, and other similar issues. Using the legislative process for such hyperlocal matters creates an inconsistent and uneven playing field, as access to a councilmember will vary among residents and businesses. Removing these issues from Council would also preserve time and attention for housing, gun violence, public health and other critical issues that span not only districts but the city at large.

Expand the authority of the Inspector General

The current Office of the Inspector General has oversight limited only to officials and agencies under the Mayor and in the executive branch. City Council should send a question to the ballot asking voters whether the Inspector General should be enshrined in the Home Rule Charter with jurisdiction extending over the rest of the city government including City Council, the City Commissioners, Sheriff, District Attorney and City Controller.

Fixing how Philly works

Guard against conflicts of interest

Philadelphia’s antiquated law targeting conflicts of interest and outside jobs is difficult to interpret and enforce. City Council should strengthen this law by clarifying the circumstances under which a conflict of interest arises for a public official and how to disclose it. Officials with second jobs must also be prohibited from acting on behalf of their outside employer when they should be serving the City of Philadelphia.

Empower the Planning Commission

The next Mayor must have a vision for how the city can grow in a way that benefits all residents while advocating on behalf of the City Planning Commission and its Philadelphia 2035 plan based on community input, shared values and long-term goals. City Council will continue to provide voice for constituent concerns, but the Mayor must double the staffing capacity of the Planning Commission and elevate its recommendations while being prepared to veto legislation that fails to align with sound and equitable planning practices.

Commit to performance management

No organization can maximize its impact without measuring outcomes. From gun violence to street maintenance to behavioral health, data should be tracked and results analyzed to shape the strategies and programming that can make a difference in our communities. The next Mayor must commit to building the capacity and culture for data-informed decisions throughout city government. A new Center for Excellence in Performance Management under the Chief Administrative Officer can engage in the collaboration across agencies necessary to drive effective and equitable city services.

Modernize the civil service

The City is struggling to attract and retain personnel across City government, with acute shortages in the police department, prisons and other agencies resulting in serious consequences. Modernizing the civil service system to make the City a competitive employer and to build a highly-qualified workforce reflective of the city is essential. This will require new investments in recruitment and marketing, streamlining the hiring process, revamping the salary scale, and building training pipelines with the Community College of Philadelphia and other local career-building institutions.

Enact term limits

City Council should send a question to the ballot asking voters whether term limits should be enacted allowing up to 12 to 16 years of service, guaranteeing a long-term and steady infusion of new perspectives, ideas and energy from new members. Such limits would provide ample time for lawmakers to tackle challenging, long-term projects while ensuring that competitive elections for open seats take place with some regularity.

Eliminate ‘resign to run’

City Council should eliminate the 1950s-era requirement that City elected officials resign their current office before running for another one. This rule creates an uneven playing field when only applied to local officials, some of whom may also have difficulty forgoing months of income. City elected officials having the option to serve the remainder of a final term while seeking higher office will also increase competition while avoiding the need for special elections to fill vacancies.

Strengthening democracy

Invest in safe and secure elections

Philadelphia must continue to invest in and modernize election operations to ensure every voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot in a safe and secure election. This means sufficient funding to send, receive and process mail ballots, staff hundreds of polling places, and procure equipment and materials needed for the increasingly complex task of running in-person and mail-in elections.

Create a chief democracy officer

The next Mayor should create a new Chief Democracy Officer tasked with leading a citywide voter engagement initiative and coordinating with the City Commissioners Office on critical election operations. In addition to nonpartisan voter education, this official would be responsible for overseeing the city’s efforts to ensure every resident is counted during the Census.

Put residents in charge of Council redistricting

Shift power away from politicians and to residents in the redrawing of the City Council districts that determine representation in City Hall. A redistricting commission led by residents and independent of City Council should have the power to collect public input and develop a mapping plan that would better reflect the city’s geography, neighborhoods and diverse communities.

Pat Christmas is the Chief Policy Officer for the Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan civic leadership organization that advances representative, ethical and effective government in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.


Photo by Peter via Flickr

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