Civic groups ask Clarke to pull back charter change proposal

A group of civic associations from across the city has sent a letter to all members of City Council asking for a proposed charter change to be removed from Council’s agenda ahead of its first meeting of the year on Thursday.

The bill, which was recommended by a Council committee after a one-hour hearing in December, would substantially overhaul the structure of the government by creating a new cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development. See previous coverage of the proposal here and here.

The Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition sent the letter earlier this week. The group asked that the legislation be suspended until more hearings could take place, and until the proposal responded to the recommendations of the Special Independent Advisory Commission appointed in the wake of the fatal building collapse at 22nd and Market streets in June of 2013.

“ALL the third party witnesses at the Bill’s December 9 hearings made an identical request for due deliberation …” the Coalition wrote in its letter. “To our knowledge, the Bill’s sponsors have presented no research to justify its recommendations, many of which contradict the Advisory Commission findings and recommendations.”

Clarke’s office did circulate a document showing how selected other cities across the country organize their development agencies, but that research was hardly discussed at the committee hearing. Read the Coalition’s full letter here.

Civic associations aren’t alone in their concern about the charter change proposal.

On Wednesday, PlanPhilly spoke with Peter Vaira and Ned Dunham, the director and chief of staff, respectively, of the mayor’s Special Independent Advisory Commission. Both said, as they did at the hearing in December, that the bill ignores central recommendations of the report they released in September—on the same day that Clarke dropped his reorganization proposal.

“It conflates, again, the issue of public safety, building safety in particular, and development, which we thought at the time and still believe is an inherent conflict of interest,” said Dunham. “No other city in the country does it this way.”

A central recommendation of the Commission was to split the Department of L&I into a Department of Buildings, focused on public safety, and a Department of Business Compliance, focused on the rest of L&I’s licensing and permitting duties. Clarke’s charter change proposal, which was aimed at streamlining development, would put the various functions of L&I under the Dept. of Planning and Development.

“It completely misses the boat,” added Peter Vaira.

Developers are concerned about the proposal as well.

Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop said on Wednesday that he hadn’t seen enough compelling research to support the charter change proposal. He wondered whether the Planning Commission, which would be placed in the new Department under the proposal, would potentially lose its focus on long-term planning. And he said, as other developers have, that any proposal meant to streamline development should include the approvals of the Water and Streets departments.

“It’s not something you do casually,” said Schelter, referring to changing the charter. “It’s something that you are deliberate about.”

Calls and an email to Clarke’s office on Wednesday afternoon went unanswered. Just after 5 p.m., a spokeswoman for Clarke sent out a press release saying he would hold a press conference in City Hall at 9 a.m. Thursday. The announcement did not say what the topic of the press conference would be: it may be unrelated to the charter change.

“Please reserve all questions until then,” the release said.

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