Committee delays vote on reorganization proposal, referendum pushed to November

City Council’s Committee on Law & Government amended a proposal Wednesday morning to restructure the local government and create a Department of Planning and Development responsible for coordinating permitting and review of construction projects in the city.

After the amendments were adopted, the legislation was held in Committee, meaning it can’t be voted out until another hearing is scheduled. In amendments sent to PlanPhilly after the hearing, the date of the proposed ballot referendum was pushed back to the general election in November. Clarke had originally hoped to get it on the May primary ballot.

As PlanPhilly previously reported, an amended version of the proposal that circulated to Council members over the weekend removed the Department of Licenses and Inspections from the legislation in response to backlash from public-safety advocates who felt the change prioritized development over building safety. It would also give Council the power to approve or deny the mayor’s appointment of the Director of Planning and Development, envisioned as a cabinet-level office. That provision is not included in the current, amended version of the legislation.

Before the committee hearing Wednesday, some of those advocates and an unfamiliar collection of other organizations—including the Philadelphia Crosstown Coalition of civic associations, the Development Workshop, the Committee of Seventy, and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group—held a joint press conference in City Hall asking Council to soft-pedal the proposed charter amendment. The groups also outlined their concerns in a letter to Council members.

Joe Schiavo, of the Crosstown Coalition, said that although civic groups and “big development” rarely find themselves on the same side of controversial issues, they are united in this case in favor of “best practices and good government.” Craig Schelter of the Development Workshop said that the issue is “too complex to rush,” and noted that the amendments to the proposal were sent around at 5 p.m. on Valentine’s Day in the middle of a long weekend, leaving one business day for stakeholders to digest the changes before the committee hearing.

Jay Bryan and Maggie Davis, both of whom had family members who died in a building collapse at 22nd and Market streets in 2013, said they were glad L&I had been removed from the proposed restructuring. But they noted the proposal does nothing to advance public safety as a development issue.

David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, said that his group generally encourages very thorough consideration of any charter amendments. He said the provision that would allow Council to confirm the Mayor’s appointee to the new cabinet-level department was concerning, a “significant shift in the balance of power” envisioned by the framers of the 1951 Home Rule Charter.

Later, during the committee hearing, At-Large Councilman Ed Neilson, who won his seat after being selected by party leaders as the Democratic nominee in a special election last year, revealed that he is working on legislation to make all of the Mayor’s cabinet appointees subject to City Council confirmation.

Two groups testified in support of the proposal: the Building Industry Association of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.

“The BIA believes it is vital to take this opportunity to streamline the permitting processes and to fully implement one-stop shopping,” said Brian Emmons, who serves as BIA’s vice president. “In other words, all of the personnel from the various departments currently required for pre-requisite sign-offs for zoning and building permit applications should be housed in one division and speak with one coordinated voice.”

Rick Sauer, executive director of PACDC, said his group also supports greater coordination and planning between the agencies that deal with housing and community development. Both Sauer and Emmons declined to take a position on the change that would allow Council to confirm the new cabinet appointee.

Joe Grace of the Chamber of Commerce said his organization generally favors greater coordination of planning and development, but said all interested groups and individuals should have more time to understand and weigh in on the proposal.

After all the witnesses had testified, Councilman Bill Greenlee, the committee chairman, conferred quietly with Council President Clarke. The Committee then voted to adopt the proposed amendments.

“I’m pretty excited about the level of dialogue we’ve had today,” Clarke said after the hearing. “We’re moving forward with an efficient and user-friendly process that at the end of the day we believe the citizens of the city will be proud of.”

Clarke said he thought the testimony in the hearing was more about the process and timing of the proposal than its substance. A majority of the witnesses at the hearing did ask for a more formal, inclusive process for various groups to discuss the proposed changes. Clarke said he would send out a memo in the next day or so outlining what his next steps will be.

In an interview with PlanPhilly on Tuesday, Clarke twice declined to say what his pitch to voters would be if and when the proposal is placed on the ballot. He declined again on Wednesday.

“There will be a clearly crafted message in terms of the need to do this,” Clarke said. “And I think that we will have significant support for the eventual legislation that will be on the ballot.”

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