A couple of weeks ago, on the heels of Governor Wolf’s calling for an array of tax increases and a spending hike of 16 percent, Michael Nutter was not to be outdone. He announced his budget for the city, and it included a 9.3 percent hike in property taxes in order to generate $105 million for city schools.
Clearly, judging from the priorities outlined by both Wolf and Nutter, something new is in the air: a sense that funding our schools is job number one. That’s pretty cool, even if the way the mayor gets there—raising property taxes for the third time in his mayoralty—isn’t particularly innovative. But for seven years now, Nutter has proven unable to get his priorities through City Council. So, how would this play out?
Last week, we got our answer. City Council President Darrell Clarke announced the schedule for his august body’s budget hearings, and I’m feeling a bit like Captain Renault in Casablanca: Shocked, just shocked, to learn that Clarke’s hearings on the school funding component of the budget won’t take place until after the May 19 primary. Clarke and his minions (and they are all minions, not a truly independent voice among them) are all up for reelection. They don’t want you to know how they’ll vote on this matter until after you’ve safely ensconced them once again in the best, most lucrative and most perk-laden job any of them will ever have. Welcome to Democracy, Philly-style, where votes of conscience are the stuff of dreams and where seizing and holding onto power for its own sake is the pro-forma playbook.
How’d Clarke construct this? In the past, budget hearings have started as early as March 10. (Last year’s started on March 19). This year, they won’t start until March 31, pushing any debate on Nutter’s tax increase beyond the electoral window. When asked by the Inquirer about the suspicious timing, Clarke’s spokeswoman Jane Roh said the delay this year was because the administration needed more time to submit its department-by-department report to Council. The administration, in turn, said, Uh, not so much…the books are right on schedule. Then Roh declined further comment.
Add this to the list of the ways City Council exhibits disdain for democracy in the city where it was born. I don’t want to bore you with the litany yet again, but the list is here and here —everything from a stunning lack of transparency as to its own spending, to the shame that is Councilmanic Prerogative. One local mover and shaker, when the subject of City Council recently came up, said, “I’m a CEO and there’s not one person on Council I’d want for my Board of Directors.”
He’s right; these are small men and women who have been elected to these cushy seats by perhaps 4 or 5 percent of the city’s population, and they want to cling to power by any means necessary. The notion that they are morally obligated to include you in a conversation about how we save our schools before you hold them accountable at the polls would be met with blank stares.
This is why we’ve printed those “I’m Voting for a City Council That Doesn’t Suck” T-shirts, folks. Because in its torpedoing of the Philadelphia Gas Works sale, in its refusal to tackle big issues like pension reform and school funding, and in its dissing of its employer—you!—City Council embarrasses those of us who love this city. That’s why we’re publishing our New Blood series here on the at-large candidates, because these times call for fresh eyes and new ideas.
So here’s a two-part game plan for you. First, here’s Darrell Clarke’s email address. Reach out to him, copying [email protected], and speak some truth to power. Tell him just what you think of this backdoor move to avoid accountability. Keep it respectful and constructive, because we really do want to help Council get to a place where it works for all of us. We’ll publish your emails to him here under the headline “Dear Darrell.”
Second, let’s drink about this! Join us for a New Blood happy hour on Monday, March 30 from 5 to 7 pm at Midtown Village’s Charlie Was A Sinner. (RSVP here). We’ll invite the at-large candidates we’ve profiled thus far; we’ll have some of those T-shirts to give away; and we’ll commiserate about this arrogant, non-responsive legislative body. Hell, let’s even invite Darrell and see if he can fit it into his election season schedule.