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The Most Radical Reform Philly Could Make?

Changing the way we elect our City Council president could be a way to return your city government to you.

The Most Radical Reform Philly Could Make?

Changing the way we elect our City Council president could be a way to return your city government to you.

Behind the scenes, the jockeying is on for who will succeed the retiring Darrell Clarke as City Council President — and local media is chronicling the horserace, if not the horse-trading. But doesn’t it feel like we’ve been here before? Seventeen insiders — Council members all — will be choosing their own leader based on a quite antiquated tradition that has resulted in only district councilmembers being considered for the leadership post.

To be clear, Councilmembers have attested to me that no one has ever told them that only district members need apply for the position of president. It’s just that, while at-large members may have greater name recognition, district members tend to be ward leaders and can use their political clout to better wrangle their colleagues’ votes. Either way, if you agree that one of the primary reasons for the stasis Philadelphia finds itself in — the every day is groundhog day nature of our politics — then shaking up the hold district members have on power might be a vital first step in reforming and moving our city forward.

You know who agrees with that? Only the greatest Council President in modern Philadelphia history, former Mayor John F. Street. He first floated to me several years ago the need for the Council President to be an at-large member of the legislative body — that way, both he or she and the mayor would be accountable to all of the city, instead of having what we have now: Utter balkanization, whereby 10 mini-mayors, in effect, exert undue control over all the land use decisions in their respective fiefdoms (thanks to another, related tradition: councilmanic prerogative), all dutifully answerable only to one of their own.

“No other politician…was more dogged than Street in trying to determine the gritty financial mechanics of what made the city work.” — Buzz Bissinger

As Council President, Street could be as much of an insider dealmaker as anyone. But what made him a great president was his willingness to partner with then-Mayor Ed Rendell in governing the whole city. “No other politician…was more dogged than Street in trying to determine the gritty financial mechanics of what made the city work,” wrote Buzz Bissinger about the mercurial Street in his seminal 1998 book, A Prayer For The City. “And among Blacks, no other politician was more willing to make decisions that might actually be good for the entire city, not just for the Black neighborhoods.”

In other words, though elected by a district, Street governed as though he was accountable to all the voters — and not just narrow interests within his councilmanic district, be they financial, racial or political, or some combination thereof. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally be one city, rather than, say, have different zoning rules in different districts promulgated by a Council president who believes in the efficacy of governance by balkanization?

A five-way race

Right now, there are reportedly five district council members vying for the presidency. They are: Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Mark Squilla, Cindy Bass, and Mike Driscoll. The consensus among insiders is that Johnson might be the favorite, and would likely be a shoo-in were it not for one minor issue: His indictment and subsequent acquittal on public corruption charges stemming from his use of councilmanic prerogative. (“Unfortunately, we can’t unindict him,” one of Johnson’s nervous supporters groused to me.)

Yes, Johnson was acquitted, as I thought he would be — the prosecutors failed to produce any smoking gun as in the Johnny Doc case — but if you’re his colleague, you have to wonder whether the Feds are really done with him. They don’t like to lose, after all. In July, the Inquirer reported that prosecutors had charged a longtime Johnson friend with “enlisting [the Councilmember] to help him sidestep the thicket of complicated procedures governing the sale of city lands. He then failed to deliver on promises to build affordable housing on the parcels he’d bought at cut-rate prices, instead flipping them in some cases for as much as 15 times what he originally paid.”

To be clear: Johnson was not charged in that case, nor was it alleged that he’d done anything wrong. But if you’re a Councilmember, knowing that the Feds can settle scores just as diabolically as any elected official, is the fact that they went after a Johnson friend maybe a little too close for comfort? Are you going to cast a vote for a president when you might not know just who else is listening every time you talk to him?

“Unfortunately, we can’t unindict him.” — a nervous Johnson supporter

Every time I talk to a current or former Councilmember, I hear nothing but praise and respect for at-large Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson. Trust me, I try to find the Achilles heel of everyone I write about. Yet all I hear about Gilmore Richardson is that 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.

This is not an endorsement of Gilmore Richardson — we don’t endorse, and even if we did that would require far more vetting. But why should someone with her reputation among her colleagues — let alone that, as a millennial, she might bring an updated mindset to the job — essentially be disqualified for consideration as Council president? Isn’t it time to move past the default position that the way we’ve always done things is the way we’re going to do them? Doesn’t that just smack of a doubling-down on status quo politics? And are you okay with Philly’s status quo?

Another more radical way

Speaking of you, there’s another, more radical way to reform Council: Have you vote for your choice for Council President. Make it a citywide election in the years when we elect the District Attorney and Controller. That’s what they do in a handful of other cities, like Spokane, Washington, and, most relevant for us, Baltimore. There, former district councilmember and former state delegate Nick Mosby ran for Council President and won in 2020. He’s recently announced his intention to seek reelection in 2024.

As the Baltimore Banner has covered, Mosby comes with some baggage — the Feds have charged his soon-to-be ex-wife, former state attorney Marilyn Mosby, with financial improprieties — but his first term as Council president turned Council into a legislative body that vigorously debates critical issues facing the city — in public. Wouldn’t that be a nice change of pace here?

From the Banner:

One of his first actions as council president halved the legislative body’s committees — some of which only had three members — and bolstered their membership. “I made a tough decision,” he recalled: “Developing a body where we have real discourse and discussion on these issues, where you don’t only need two votes to pass out of committee.”

This council term has been marked by vigorous debate among members, both about the mayor’s policies and some bills proposed by the council…Last spring, a hearing over Mosby’s bill to resurrect a program to sell city-owned vacant homes to long-term residents for one dollar turned rancorous when a rowdy crowd of supporters marched through the building…The council ultimately voted against the legislation, which Mosby had proposed be paid for by an infusion of cash from American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The council president has long criticized the mayor’s decision to disburse the pot of $641 million among dozens of initiatives instead of putting most of it toward one singular initiative. “I wanted us to take a step back and aggressively pursue generational change, and I attempted to do that with the dollar house bill and with House Baltimore,” a separate package of laws passed by the council to bolster housing protections for residents.

Again, this isn’t an endorsement of Nick Mosby, and nor would I point to Baltimore as the be-all and end-all when it comes to good governance. But the Baltimore model should make us at least consider how change does or doesn’t happen in a big, naturally sclerotic and chronically corrupt city.

Simply elevating the same characters time and again in a purely transactional inside game has gotten us where we are — crime ridden and highly taxed, with low job growth and filthy streets. That is hardly a prescription for change. Yes, we will have a new Mayor and Council President come 2024. But is being new enough? Don’t we also need some new thinking?

Maybe that could start with recalibrating who’s in the room when it happens. At least you’ll be represented if an at-large councilmember is chosen to lead your legislative body. And if you could vote on whom that would be? Philadelphia government would be able to rebrand itself as embracing change — ironically, by returning to its roots as the first and most democratic of cities.


Who should the next City Council president be and how should we select them? Photo illustration by Ralph Thorn.

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