Defending City Council

    Mayor Bill Green called it the worst legislative body in the free world, and its members have embarrassed themselves and our city at times.

    But as the State Supreme Court commands that Philadelphia City Council entertain comments from the public at its regular meetings, I have to stand up for Council.

    I’ve covered city government for a long time, and I can tell you that Council’s legislative practices are more open and transparent than most legislative bodies.

    They’re certainly more transparent than the state legislature, with its history of midnight power grabs and sweeping bills enacted without hearings, or Congress, with his history of anonymous Senate amendments and earmarks.

    A little primer: When a bill is introduced in Council, it’s debated at a public hearing which is advertised in advance and open to public comment from anybody.

    When a bill moves from committee to the full Council, it must be read at a Council session and sit for at least a  week, just so its passage won’t be a surprise.

    Bills can’t be amended to change their original purpose, so you can’t take a parking regulation bill and ram through a pension grab while nobody’s looking.

    There’s great value in public comment, and I think it’s best given at committee hearings, when bills are being drafted and all affected parties are present to offer reactions to new ideas.

    If Council now has to permit public comment at every session, there will no doubt be worthwhile contributions. But don’t be surprised if a handful of people who have the time and temerity to share their every thought dominate, and offer little of value.

    If the law says Council has to give the public its say at every session, that’s what it says. But I would note that it was passed by a legislature that restricts the public to spectator galleries when it meets, and expects them to remain silent.

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