As of this writing, more than 100 homicides have taken place this year in Philadelphia. That’s ahead of last year’s pace, when a record-breaking 562 people were murdered. A quarter of Philadelphians live in poverty, while 22 percent of adults in the city lack basic literacy skills.
Nearly 70 percent of third graders can’t read at grade level. Nearly three-quarters of maternal deaths in Philadelphia are Black women. An estimated 10,000 out of 16,000 city blocks are covered in trash, according to GlitterApp’s Morgan Berman. Vaccination rates are lagging, especially among Black residents, contrary to rosy health department numbers.
Philadelphia is a disaster.
In this time of unprecedented crisis, members of City Council have done what they do best: pat themselves and their friends on the back for a job well done.
Instead of debating and passing bold legislation designed to pull Philadelphia from the depths of the dumpster fire in which its citizens are burning (in some cases to literal death), City Council spends the overwhelming majority of its time passing honorific resolutions. These legislative trophies are designed to honor everyone and everything from celebrities to community organizers to television shows and board games. It’s a cacophony of honorableness. And it’s taken over the legislative process in Philadelphia.
This is not normal. It’s infuriating. Especially if you’re Black, economically distressed, faced with poor school choices or the victim of a violent crime.
Between 2000 and 2019, one in six legislative agenda items was an honorific resolution. In recent weeks that number has skyrocketed, along with the homicide rate: In one recent week 77 percent of the bills and resolutions Council passed were honorific. Since the beginning of 2022, an average 55 percent of the bills and resolutions passed by the legislative body are honorific, according to an analysis of Lauren Vidas’ ‘Broad and Market’ Council-watch project. The pandemic lingers as trash and bodies continue to pile up on the blocks of mostly Black neighborhoods, and Council has spent more than half of its legislative effort giving out awards and high-fives.
A sampling of Council resolutions
Here’s a few of the honorifics Council passed on March 17:
- Honoring NBC10 Philadelphia’s Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz on the occasion of his upcoming retirement and recognizing his 27 years with the First Alert Weather Team
- Honoring the Independence Blue Cross Foundation on the occasion of its 10th Anniversary
- Celebrating and congratulating Girl Scouts of the USA on the occasion of its 110th Anniversary
Girl Scout cookies and weather reports are great, but seriously?
It’s low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods where the city allows illegal dumping and trash pileups. It’s these treeless, trash-filled neighborhoods for which City Council (and the mayor) have no investment strategy, so they become soil beds for violence and murder.
It’s these same neighborhoods whose schools are dilapidated, neglected, under-staffed and under-resourced. It’s these same neighborhoods that lack employment opportunities, grocery stores and medical care. And it’s these same neighborhoods that have been denied the voting infrastructure and ballot boxes necessary to do anything about it. The frustration builds. And anger toward City leaders is beginning to bubble over.
Philadelphia residents, many already living in the struggle space, don’t want to worry about being gunned down on a daily basis. They are sick of watching their children’s futures being snuffed out by the same schools that are supposed to help them succeed. They want their trash picked up, and they want a better schools superintendent. And while City Council is more than capable of tackling these issues, they are actively choosing not to do so.
City Council is overwhelmingly Black, and nearly all members come from the same Democratic party. They don’t have separatist and Far Right colleagues to blame for stalled or blocked legislation. According to a report produced by Billy Penn and PlanPhilly, “Philadelphia City Council introduced over 15,000 bills and resolutions in the last two decades … all legislation that made it to a floor vote has passed—with just five exceptions.”
If the members of City Council want to pass a bill, they can pass a bill. If they want to pretend they are working while doing the bare minimum necessary to keep their jobs, they can pass honorific resolutions. And, well, so they do.
It’s time for Council to stop hiding behind honorifics and start doing the actual work of legislating.
Appreciate civic participation in some other way
Philadelphia can still pass honorific resolutions without making them the primary function of City Council. For example, Council could form an Honorific Resolutions Committee that meets at a separate time and carries out the appropriate pomp and circumstance.
We get it: There is nothing wrong with applauding or encouraging civic participation and engagement. We’re not opposed to honorific resolutions—we’re opposed to the priority that is given to them at the expense of more pressing issues that matter most to Philadelphia residents. They are being used to fill time and feign effort.
A separate Honorific Resolutions Committee could serve as a training ground for youth and adults interested in learning more about how their government functions.
We’re also not opposed to the many wonderful, engaged and concerned people who are the honorees. We want to give thanks to people (and even things) that elevate life in Philadelphia. However, abusing the process does injustice to the people being honored, particularly those who fought or advocated for a better Philadelphia.
Honorifics do serve a purpose. They can be a good venue through which to educate the community on historic figures and current advocates. They also can be utilized to teach citizens about the steps that should be taken to pass legislation in Philadelphia.
A separate Honorific Resolutions Committee could serve as a training ground for youth and adults interested in learning more about how their government functions. Philadelphia middle and high school students, for example, could be selected and trained as “Council Academy Fellows” who are tasked with running the Committee. Participating Fellows could receive credits, stipends, grants or direct basic income for their time. College scholarships to university political science programs at area universities could even be rewarded to young, aspiring students who stand out.
This would follow in the wake of recent Council legislation promoting civic literacy and education in Philadelphia’s troubled school system. This would restore the function of honorifics as an education tool.
Perhaps, toward the end of busy Stated Meetings, Council could reserve a space before member remarks (once serious and substantive legislation has been voted on) when young Fellows could offer a brief, formal presentation on the resolutions they passed that previous week.
The councilmembers, in a separate voting process, would have already formally passed these resolutions. That segment should last no longer than 10 or 15 minutes. This would be an opportunity to showcase Philadelphia youth at work while grooming them as future leaders. It would also show the public that Council takes its primary responsibility seriously.
The people of Philadelphia really do deserve to see Council grappling with the hard stuff. They deserve leaders who will relentlessly fight for them. They deserve legislators who will work exhaustively to pass laws that make the city cleaner, safer, smarter, healthier, and more equitable. Honorific resolutions won’t give them that. But a fully functioning City Council can.
We can afford a separate committee. We can’t afford week after week of death, decay, and councilmember disinterest.
Charles D. Ellison is executive producer and host of “Reality Check,” a daily public affairs program on WURD and is @ellisonreport on Twitter. Mark Gleason is President & Founder of A Greater Philadelphia at greaterphila.org or @AGreaterPhilly on Twitter.
Header photo by Jared Piper / Philadelphia City Council