Clarke modifies charter proposal, seeks Council approval of new cabinet appointee

A modified version of City Council President Darrell Clarke’s proposal to amend the city charter and create a cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development will go before the Council’s Committee on Law & Government Wednesday.

The amended proposal was outlined in a memo sent to Council members over the weekend. The legislation remains substantially intact from the original version, with a few major changes.

For one, it no longer impacts the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The original proposal had placed various functions of L&I under the Department of Planning and Development, leading to backlash from community groups and advocates who feared that the proposal didn’t put enough emphasis on building safety.

Instead, the amended proposal would create a Division of Development Services within the Dept. of Planning and Development, in addition to a Division of Planning and Zoning and a Division of Housing and Community Development.

The Division of Development Services would be responsible for coordinating meetings between developers and city agencies that review construction projects to secure feedback on necessary approvals, establishing timelines for project review, and resolving issues that arise during the review process.

L&I would remain intact while the Nutter Administration pursues its own reforms based on recommendations from a special advisory commission on building safety. The most significant recommendation of that report—which was guided by Peter Vaira and Ned Dunham, who testified against Clarke’s charter proposal at an earlier committee hearing—was to split L&I into separate entities, a Dept. of Buildings focused on public safety and a Dept. of Business Services.

In another significant change, the amended bill would give Council the power to approve the mayor’s appointment of the Director of Planning and Development. The mayor currently has sole power to appoint his cabinet, including the Managing Director, the Commerce Director, the City Representative and the Finance Director. (The Finance Director is appointed from a list approved by a Finance Panel to ensure the appointee is qualified.)

Other changes to the proposal include establishing a “Transition Team” responsible for guiding the implementation of the proposal. The team would be required to report to Council by May of 2016.

Earlier this month, the Design Advocacy Group held a meeting to discuss Clarke’s proposal. Around 50 people came to the meeting, said Kiki Bolender, who serves as chair of the group, and none spoke in support of the charter change. Bolender said that the group’s major concerns were around building safety—a parent of one of the victims of the building collapse at 22nd and Market streets was in attendance—and about changing the city charter without a full airing of the problems that need solving.

“I think that everybody agreed that the issue is charter change,” said Bolender. “The big issue is a good-government issue … There’s no substance in the proposal to show how it would benefit the public.”  

Council offices were closed on Monday because of Presidents Day, so Clarke’s office was not available to respond to questions.

“It is anticipated that significant improvements in how the City manages planning and development matters will result from the creation of a cabinet level Department of Planning and Development,” Clarke wrote in his memo to Council. “By consolidating related planning and development functions within this new department, most of which are not currently connected or accountable to each other, to be led by a highly competent development professional, this legislation promises a 21st century organization structure that will greatly enhance our City’s ability to plan and support development.”

The Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition of civic associations is planning to hold a press conference outside Council chambers prior to the committee hearing on Wednesday morning. Joe Schiavo, who serves as chair of the Coalition’s zoning and land use committee, said the group will recommend that the ballot question be changed so as to create a commission to study the reorganization of city offices and agencies, similar to the Zoning Code Commission that rewrote the city’s zoning rules over a period of years. Schiavo said the coalition will be delivering a letter to Council members on Tuesday morning.

Schiavo said he’s specifically concerned by the provision of the amended proposal that gives Council the power to approve the mayor’s appointment of the new department director.

Even though the amended proposal substantially leaves L&I alone, it would place the Zoning Board of Adjustment under the new Department of Planning and Development, which would be headed by the Council-approved mayoral appointee. It also says the duties of the Planning Commission and Historical Commission would remain the same, but places them below the Director of Planning and Development.

“That seems to be a shift in authority,” Schiavo said. “I think it’s problematic because Council controls who that person is and their disposition toward all the agencies and offices under them.”

Kiki Bolender sees mischief in that provision as well.

“I have been wondering why the Council President wants to make this charter change,” she said on Monday. “This passage is the beginning and end of the story.”

Read the amended version of the bill and the ballot question here. Clarke hopes to get the question on the ballot for the primary election on May 19. To testify at Wednesday’s hearing of the Committee on Law & Government, at 10 a.m. in Room 400 at City Hall, call the Chief Clerk’s office at 215-686-3410.

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