Committee approves plan to restructure local government amid pleas for more time

City Council’s Committee on Law and Government recommended approval on Tuesday of a proposal introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke that would amend the city charter to create a cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development and reorganize various agencies, boards, and commissions in the municipal government.

The proposal, which would require the approval of city voters through a ballot question, was introduced earlier this fall. Nearly everyone who testified at Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted little more than an hour, said that various aspects of the plan need to be vetted by a wider variety of individuals and agencies who may be impacted by the change. Nevertheless, Council President Darrell Clarke asked the Committee to approve the proposal, promising to continue to work on amendments over the next few months.

Essentially, the proposal would consolidate a number of departments, boards, and commissions under a single Director of Planning and Development, who would be a mayoral appointee. It would place the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and the Historical Commission into a Division of Planning and Zoning. It would also create a Housing Division with an Intergovernmental Housing Commission to administer the Housing Trust Fund.

More controversially, the proposal would create a Division of Licenses, Inspections, and Enforcement that would be responsible for most of the functions of the current Dept. of Licenses and Inspections. Clarke’s charter proposal was introduced on the same day that Mayor Michael Nutter received a list of recommendations from an independent advisory commission he’d appointed to review L&I in the wake of the building collapse at 22nd and Market streets last year that killed six people and led to the suicide of an L&I inspector.

Prior to the vote, the committee heard from a variety of witnesses. Nancy Winkler, the mother of a young woman named Anne Bryan who died in the building collapse last year, told the committee that public safety should be the primary focus of any charter change that impacts the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections. She urged the committee to hold the proposal until the recommendations of the special advisory commission, which include splitting L&I into a Dept. of Buildings and a Dept. of Business Compliance, could be digested by the Administration.

“The public wants real reform and a public safety focus,” Winkler said. “City charter changes should be seriously discussed. This charter amendment would enshrine the status of safety as secondary to development.”

Winkler said that L&I can’t have a public-safety focus if it is housed in a unit that is focused on development.

Clarke said that his proposal had been in the works for more than a year, and that it had nothing to do with the report of the special advisory commission on L&I.

Alan Greenberger, the deputy mayor for economic development, commended the Council President for taking on such a sweeping reorganization of the government and said he agreed with a number of its goals. But he said the Nutter Administration and various groups who could be impacted had concerns and needed more time to consider the proposal.

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Greenberger said. “… There’s a lot of people, not in this room, who will have an interest in how this turns out.”

Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop and Anne Fadullon of the Building Industry Association also told the committee that they support the intent of the proposal, but they believe it needs more time to be understood.

“While you can’t write detail into the charter, the implementation strategy for any major charter change should provide operation details,” Fadullon said in a prepared statement. “Philadelphia should not run headlong into a change before fully understanding the nuts and bolts of exactly what changes will occur and how the new organizational structure will work.”

Schelter noted that in order for any reorganization to truly streamline development, it would also need to address the approval processes of the Water Department and the Streets Department.

Beth McConnell of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations recommended that the Division of Housing be named the Division of Housing and Community Development, a symbolic gesture that would acknowledge that some part of the city is responsible for community development beyond housing. She also suggested common board membership for the various agencies that are tasked with coordinating housing policy for the city.

Additionally, two members of the Mayor’s special advisory commission, Director Peter Vaira and Chief of Staff Edward M. Dunham, warned that the proposal would keep L&I in the current, inappropriate position of being responsible for public safety as well as development.

“The deeply rooted susceptibility of L&I to an expanding and shifting mission needs to change for building safety to receive the focused attention it deserves,” Dunham and Vaira said in a prepared statement.

At the time of the vote, committee members Bobby Henon, Ed Neilson, Wilson Goode, Jr., Darrell Clarke, and chairman Bill Greenlee were present. The proposal passed with no members voting in opposition.

After the hearing, PlanPhilly asked Council President Clarke why he had called for a vote despite nearly every witness saying it needed more time. Clarke said he will work with the Administration and various stakeholder groups over the next few months and plan to amend the bill in the spring. He still hopes to have the charter amendment placed on the spring ballot.

“I think that our ability to get this moving and get it on the charter referendum in May gives us an opportunity to actually have something implemented in mid-2016,” Clarke said. “If we don’t do that, then you’re pushing it back, possibly, to 2017. At some point, everybody acknowledges that there should be some things done. But we need to tee it up to have the appropriate program in place.”

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