Council seeking significant changes to legislation structuring Rebuild

Late Wednesday in City Council, the first public hearing devoted to legislation that would enable the Kenney administration’s plan to renovate parks, rec centers, and libraries, took center stage. The hearing on Rebuild, which came after two-plus weeks of postponements and speculation, found councilmembers still airing out frustrations about the administration’s approach to diversifying the local building trades through the project, one of the three main tenets of Rebuild.

But in the end, following a nearly five-hour hearing, a vote on one consolidated bill detailing both project management and financing for Rebuild was delayed until next week. A slate of amendments to the legislation did pass. However, those amendments — some of which would alter central structural elements of how the administration wants to deliver Rebuild — did not appear to be part of a grand bargain between Council and the administration. Both sides signaled that negotiations would continue.

“The meat and potatoes is going to come on a later date,” said Councilwoman Cindy Bass during the hearing. “We’re having the salad today.”

For close watchers of Rebuild, which has lofty goals and a hefty price tag of $500 million, the message after the hearing seemed to be: keep holding your breath.

While the tenor of questions from Council oftentimes veered sharply into criticism of the administration, it was the kind of pushback many expected. Over the last few months, members have publicly voiced the need to get hard targets for economic opportunity in the Rebuild legislation (and a corresponding Memorandum of Understanding with the building unions) that would pave the way for female, black, and brown Philadelphians to receive construction contracts and gain entrance to unions — through apprenticeship tests —that have historically remained overwhelmingly white and male. The administration presented a few noteworthy additions to their plan, though these didn’t seem to satisfy councilmembers on first blush.

Council President Darrell Clarke set the tone early with questions posed to Rebuild director Nicole Westerman. “I think one of the most frustrating things to me is the inability to get parity as it relates to the workforce, particularly with capital projects,” he said, speaking about the city’s track record. “The mayor has indicated that this is an opportunity to correct that to some degree. How does the PLA [project labor agreement] or the MOU address that issue?”

In response, Westerman said the current draft of the MOU borrows from other models, such as Penn Assist, to ensure that there is a process for “recruiting, assessing, and providing paid work opportunities for individuals while they prepare to take the apprentice exam.” Outside of working with the unions to open their doors, Westerman added a new wrinkle: the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority could hire non-union workers on some Rebuild projects, while individuals are provided with training for the apprenticeship tests. In other words, the city could provide paid work to people aspiring to join unions, provide them with experience on Rebuild sites in the short term, while they try to break into the unions in the long term.

These overtures by the administration only raised eyebrows. “We in Philadelphia have really done a terrible job when it comes to inclusion in the past,” Bass said, garnering applause from a full audience in the chambers. “Originally when I asked the administration about work sites and what the work sites are going to look like — will there be diversity that looks like Philadelphia on day one? In year one? And I was told no.” Moving into year two and year three, Bass said, the answer from the administration remained no, not until halfway through Rebuild’s seven-year run would the work sites achieve the robust diversity goals the project aims to achieve. It’s a talking point that Bass has repeated in recent weeks to audiences in her district.

But Westerman said that’s not the case. “The numbers in the legislation, we will achieve in year one.” Those numbers are reflective of a 2016 analysis of employment composition in Philadelphia, conducted by the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Among other diversity goals, Rebuild aims to have 45 percent of the workforce on sites to be comprised of minority laborers (27 percent African-American, 14 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian).

Bass expressed surprise at the apparent change in expectations, along with unmitigated skepticism. “If we’re not ready, then we need to shelve Rebuild until we are ready,” Bass said.

“We are ready, councilwoman,” Westerman said.

“We’ll see,” Bass replied.

Related to the lively discussion surrounding the best way to achieve the workforce diversity aspirations of Rebuild was a corresponding conversation about how to hold parties accountable if those numbers weren’t being met. As the legislation currently reads, there would be monitors at Rebuild sites on a daily basis to ensure that the workforce participation is living up to the plan that the  “project users” — the entities responsible for assignments and managing contracts on sites — laid out in order to be given money. “When folks don’t meet the numbers, how do we enforce it?” asked Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Westerman said, “we ultimately should be holding the project user accountable [to meeting the standards] and if they’re not, withhold payment.”

“As far as I’ve looked, in the history of Philadelphia a project has never been stopped for violating diversity or inclusion [standards],” David Oh remarked almost an hour later, echoing Quiñones-Sánchez.

“I think Rebuild can be different if you articulated in the ordinance, if you put in a mechanism whereby the project [managers] or the general contractors agreed not to be paid or having their work stopped … if you don’t have the numbers, then a third-party entity like OEO comes in and puts the workers on the job,” Oh said. “I would support Rebuild if it had a trigger mechanism.”

Such an inclusion in the legislation appears to be a long shot, although there were a few significant amendments incorporated into bill 170206.* For months, the administration has been steadfast in its support of a “project user” paradigm. Nonprofits, such as community development corporations, would be the entities overseeing work on Rebuild sites and assigning contracts, if the administration has its way, rather than the traditional avenue for capital projects that relies on city departments to deliver or manage this work. But one of the amendments passed by Council on Wednesday could disrupt the administration’s long-held thinking on project users:

Rebuild projects will be delivered by Project Users except when the District Councilmember where the project is located, chooses an alternative project delivery method. Such alternatives may include PPR’s skilled trades “capital squad,” PPR or Department of Public Property (“DPP”) capital projects staff, or the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

If codified in the final legislation, such a provision would be a radical departure from the administration’s original plans and even their subsequent proposals. But then again, the administration warned that any of those amendments should be taken with a grain of salt. “We’re still expecting some changes,” said Lauren Hitt, Communications Director for Mayor Kenney.  

“We’re still optimistic this is going to get passed this session, but there are still some fine details that we need to iron out before we’re all the way there,” said David Gould, Rebuild’s Deputy Director for Community Engagement and Communications, after the hearing.

*NOTE: PlanPhilly has requested an updated version of this legislation, and will post it here upon receiving the bill as currently amended.

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