Help Is On The Way

Tired of being embarrassed by City Council? A new PAC is doing something about it.

Help Is On The Way

Tired of being embarrassed by City Council? A new PAC is doing something about it.

Back in December, when news first broke of what would become Philly 3.0, a political action committee dedicated to changing the makeup of City Council, Democratic party boss Bob Brady unwittingly advertised the need for it  in an Inquirer article. Brady said he was “a little surprised” that Joe Zuritsky—who formed Philly 3.0 with his son Rob and other Center City business leaders — hadn’t first consulted with him about his plans. “He’s been to see me many times for help. I’ve always helped him,” said the Congressman, noting, “I’ve always stuck with incumbents.”

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Now, I have real respect for Bob Brady, because unlike so many pols, he’s not just all talk: He gets stuff done. (See: The 2016 Democratic National Convention, or any of our averted labor strikes.) But the assumption that a citizen who wants to get involved in local politics ought to bow down and “consult” with the powers that be is simply…Kremlinesque. It’s a notion that values the inside game over the common good. Council is particularly good at doing that. Called the “worst legislative body in the free world” in the 1970s by then-mayor Bill Green, it has been living up to the billing ever since. Time and again, it refuses to do the people’s business (see: the aborted PGW gas deal) and opts instead for pettiness and score-settling, like Council President Darrell Clarke’s longstanding schoolyard back and forth with Mayor Nutter or the power grab that is Clarke’s reorganization plan for L & I.

We should be outraged by Council’s anti-democratic nature. The litany bears repeating:

Council holds hearings on the budget of every city agency—but exempts itself from such transparency. When it comes to its $15 million budget, Darrell Clarke and his minions literally refuse to tell you how they spend your money.

Then there’s Councilmanic Prerogative, the near absolute power each of the 10 District council members wield over development in their districts, an open invitation to corruption.

And don’t forget the six-figure salary, city car and 23 weeks off from work. For many of those on the august body, it’s the best job they’re ever going to have—so why not refrain from rocking any boats and keep it as long as possible? The inspiring Philly 3.0 website, unveiled this week, puts it well: “The six longest-tenured current City Council members have been in office for a combined 132 years.”

Being on Council is the best job many are ever going to have—so why not refrain from rocking any boats and keep it as long as possible? The inspiring Philly 3.0 website puts it well: “The six longest-tenured current city council members have been in office for a combined 132 years.”

To this list of outrages, Alison Perelman brings a bigger-picture perspective. She’s Philly 3.0’s executive director (and the millennial daughter of civic bright lights Marsha and Jeff Perelman). She has worked as a Council staffer, and saw up close the degree to which finding real solutions to real problems just isn’t a part of the daily conversation in those City Hall corridors. “Attention is paid to Mayoral positions on issues, but the same attention is not paid to Council members and their positions on issues,” she says.

Philly 3.0 is sending out an issues-based questionnaire to all Council candidates; once completed, it will publish them and endorse a slate of candidates, no doubt airing TV ads in support. (One published report estimated that the group has raised $2 million for such efforts). Philly 3.0’s diverse endorsement committee is particularly impressive, a host of forward-thinking business people who have all worked with underserved populations, including Dr. Keith Leaphart, President and CEO of Replica Creative and Board Chair of the Lenfest Foundation, Cynthia Figueroa, President and CEO of Congreso, and Dr. Beatriz Garces, founder of the Garces Foundation and owner of Garces Dental Group.

The topics on the questionnaire that’s going to candidates range from the overarching challenges facing the city—school funding, pension and tax reform—to asking for positions on Councilmanic Prerogative, and whether each candidate would support closing the campaign finance loophole that allows sitting Council members to exceed spending limits for “non-campaign” and “pre-campaign” activities. Recently, 3.0 hired a field director; the organization will soon begin a voter registration drive aimed at the plethora of Millennials who could change this city if they would only turn out to the polls.

Late last year, when the buzz around Philly 3.0 first started (it was called Philly Rising then), Marc Brownstein of the Brownstein Group ad agency, one of the businessmen behind the group and its spokesman, told the Inquirer the group hoped “to improve the business climate so we can retain and attract jobs.”

But the mission has become much more holistic. “We’re not a single issue organization,” says Perelman. “We’re committed to bringing ideas forward across the spectrum, because we haven’t seen substantive debate on policy in Council races.”

That’s good, because there’s a new generation of Philadelphians untethered to the way things have always been done, committed to exploring new solutions to old problems. You’ve met them here in our ongoing New Blood series on Council candidates, from Isaiah Thomas to Paul Steinke to Tom Wyatt to Terry Tracy, with more to come. (We were hoping to include Helen Gym as well, but she bailed on an interview two days ago. Helen: Call us!) They’re full of ideas, policy papers, and a fresh-eyed optimism about the city that can only be diminished by too much exposure to the usual suspects among us.

If you agree change on Council is needed, email us to receive a free “I’m voting for a City Council that doesn’t suck” T-shirt.

As the 3.0 website makes clear, it’s high time for some new blood. If you agree, join us; we’re giving away the pictured “I’m Voting for a City Council That Doesn’t Suck” T-shirt to the first 75 of you who email me. Let’s get the message out that change is needed; anything like Philly 3.0 that amplifies this idea has to be a good thing.

But there is one red flag in Philly 3.0’s setup. It’s telling that, in its questionnaire, 3.0 doesn’t ask candidates to weigh in on Council’s lack of transparency. They can’t, because they’re mimicking it. As a 501c4, they can make unlimited “independent expenditures” in political campaigns without disclosing who their donors are. “As an organization, we don’t discuss our donors,” Perelman says. “We feel very strongly that this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the city.”

Perelman not only won’t say who the donors are, she also won’t reveal how much money the group has raised or what their advertising plans are. Given the ridiculousness of our campaign finance laws (thanks, Supreme Court), these are all perfectly legal positions to take, and I get the resistance to be transparent. Though we self-mythologize as a tough town, many business leaders don’t want to take on the political class. That’s why the Chamber of Commerce is seen as too timid: Real change requires real fights. Who has the stomach for that?

Moreover, some have suggested that many of the business leaders behind Philly 3.0 want to stay in the shadows because they might get criticized for living in the suburbs. To which I say: So what? They’re stakeholders in this city: They pay taxes, they employ city residents, and they contribute to our cultural institutions. The truth is, we need more business leaders stepping up and committing to make a difference for the common good, but we need them to do it unmasked, because democracy is all about spirited public debate…and because maybe it will go viral and start a trend.

Philly 3.0 writes inspiringly on its website: “If a system only works for the people on the inside, it doesn’t work for anyone.” Yet in its insularity and lack of transparency, it models what is most corrosive about our politics. Finally, we have some business leaders in this too tepid town stepping up to say, “We can do better.” That’s a good thing. But, c’mon, dudes: I’ve got mad love for what you’re doing…I just wish you’d publicly raise your hands and let us shake them.

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