Editor’s Note: This class has already begun and we are no longer accepting new applicants. We had a great response, though, and may offer the class again at a later date. If you’re interested in learning more about that, please send your email address to [email protected].
Ever see something really cool elsewhere and say to yourself: “Someone should do that here!” Well, we recently did. And we decided to be that someone.
Here’s the background: On election day last month, New Yorkers went to the polls and, en masse, struck a resounding blow for Democracy. For a year prior, and for the first time in 30 years, New York’s Charter Revision Commission had conducted a top-to-bottom review of the city’s framework for government, paying particular attention to the balance of power among elected offices, how taxpayer dollars are collected and spent, and how changes are made to neighborhoods.
Following Benjamin’s challenge to her colleagues on New York’s commission— “…if we were advising on the creation of a brand new city of 8 million people, how would that government be structured in an ideal world?”—might just be the thing in these fractured times that brings all of us together.
Chairwoman Gail Benjamin, a longtime fixture on New York’s City Council on land use issues, challenged her commission members: “… if we were advising on the creation of a brand new city of 8 million people, how would that government be structured in an ideal world?” Ultimately, they produced five ballot questions containing 19 specific changes to local governance, and, leading up to election day, embarked on a widespread marketing campaign behind the slogan “You Can Vote On That”—an invitation for citizens to take back their government.
Well, those citizens listened. Though overall turnout was low (13 percent) in a non-mayoral election year, the five questions passed overwhelmingly, all with at least 70 percent of the vote. You may have heard of the most high-profile change: The electorate’s embrace of ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to cast ballots for multiple candidates in order of preference. New York is now the most populous of 20 cities to adopt ranked-choice voting.
“Right now we have a winner-take-all system and what we’ve seen in election after election is that participation is down,” Benjamin explained on local TV just before Election Day. “People are dissatisfied with the choices they get, and discouraged. Ranked-choice voting means their vote will always be counted.”
How does that sound, Philly? Wouldn’t your vote counting be kind of a novel idea here?
Of course, New York’s reforms went beyond ranked-choice voting. Voters also approved strengthening the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, over the opposition of the police union, and passed a package of ethics and governance reforms, including a two-year lobbying ban on former city officials, while instituting a Council “advise and consent” role on some mayoral appointees.
Who knows what a deep dive into modern-day good governance might find? That’s kind of the coolest part. We’re going to start with a group of citizens meeting weekly under the aegis of a professor who literally has Philadelphia political reform in his blood, and hope to use that to jumpstart a citywide conversation.
Five ballot questions, 19 reforms, all with at least 70 percent support at the polls. Who says local democracy is dead? New York got us thinking: It’s been 68 years since a group of youthful reformers, led by the swashbuckling legendary Mayor Richardson Dilworth, created our modern-day government by passing Philadelphia’s home rule charter, a document that, at the time, essentially said to a corrupt Republican machine, It’s our government. We’re taking it back.
1951’s Charter was a visionary document, a love letter to good government. But it is nearly 70 years old; much of it is outdated. Which is why we ought to follow New York’s lead and update it.
There have been many attempts over the years to do just that, but getting a sclerotic, one-party government to reform itself has proven to be a non-starter. So it’s up to citizens to take the initiative. Which is why we reached out to Drexel professor of politics Richardson Dilworth, whose hard-drinking, patrician, in-your-face grandfather instigated the last era of Philadelphia reform.
Dilworth, The Citizen and a host of political and civic bold-face names will team teach a nine-week course, called Urban Citizenship, open to both Drexel students and any resident who wants in, beginning on January 9; out of it, we hope to amass a series of reforms and a Citizen’s Commission for Charter Reform that will then try and agitate for the political class to pay attention to our recommendations.
Cards on the table: I’d love to see a citywide debate around issues like ranked-choice voting, or, better yet, open primaries, so more Philadelphians can have a say in who runs Philadelphia; term limits for City Council, given that we’re the only big city in America that has them for the mayor but not for our legislative body; the elimination of row offices and councilmanic prerogative; and the establishment of an elected public advocate, as in New York—in a corrupt, one-party town, maybe we need to codify a good government elected office, with subpoena power and a non-voting seat on Council.
But that’s just me. Really, who knows what a deep dive into modern-day good governance might find? That’s kind of the coolest part. We’re going to start with a group of citizens meeting weekly under the aegis of a professor who literally has Philadelphia political reform in his blood, and hope to use that to jumpstart a citywide conversation that asks, in effect, just what kind of city we want to live in.
Instead of political jostling over internecine issues of the day—what kind of cut to make to the tax abatement for new construction, or whether yet another new tax is justified—how refreshing would it be to argue over the setting of new ground rules about how we all go about actually living together? Following Benjamin’s challenge to her colleagues on New York’s commission— “…if we were advising on the creation of a brand new city of 8 million people, how would that government be structured in an ideal world?”—might just be the thing in these fractured times that brings all of us together.
To join the class, register—for free—by reaching out to us here.Photo courtesy C. Smyth / Visit Philadelphia