Giving Philly City Council a spanking – and some credit

    Last Friday, I made a point on our evening news magazine NewsWorks Tonight about the way Philadelphia City Council is handling an issue that’s both a political hot potato and a policy brain teaser – the Actual Value Initiative, which would update city property assessments and transform the way property taxes are calculated.

    The gist of my comment was that Council has departed from its normal legislative procedure in a way that gives the public less notice of what they’re up to and less opportunity to react. You can listen to my interview with host Dave Heller here.

    Friday evening, I heard from a representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke and another veteran of city government who took issue with my critique.

    I stand by the case I made on the show, but they have a point, too and, and I want to give the story a little more context than the time limits of the show permitted.

    Council wrestles a monster

    First, from my observation, Council President Clarke has worked very hard in good faith to try and craft a consensus among his members around policies that will fix the property assessment mess, meet the city and school district’s financial needs, and protect the most vulnerable taxpayers.

    Second, I’ll say that this is particularly hard because the AVI property tax proposal is hands down, the most complicated issue I’ve ever seen Council confront in the 28 years I’ve reported on the body. If you have any doubt, spend a little time looking at some of this material.

    And it’s fair to note that Council held four neighborhood budget hearings early in the process, and that every bill relating to this issue was aired at a series of advertised public hearings at which any interested citizen could testify.

    Council’s exceptional history

    I’ve long argued that Philadelphia City Council’s handling of legislation is more transparent and democratic than most legislative bodies.

    Certainly more transparent than the Pennsylvania legislature, which engineered a radical takeover of the Philadelphia convention center overnight, with no public notice or hearings. And certainly more than the U.S. Senate, where a member can single-handedly and anonymously hold or kill a piece of legislation.

    Council holds real public hearings on every bill. I can’t ever remember seeing a hearing in which anybody who wanted to testify was denied a chance.

    Another thing – the titles of bills have to reflect their content. This is to prevent someone from taking a bill on a parking regulation, ripping out the original language, substituting a pension grab and sneaking it through. If members change the substance of a bill in committee, it has to be re-introduced with a different title.

    And there’s this extra piece of transparency, which is the subject of Friday’s comments – when a bill is voted from committee and reported to the full Council, it must be placed on the agenda for a Council meeting for what’s called a “first reading.” That tells the public this bill is set up for passage. But the bill can’t pass until the following meeting. The procedure gives the public a week to look at the legislation in its final form, and if they object, try and organize some opposition.

    What’s different this time

    Last week, Council voted out several bills and put them on Council’s first reading calendar, before they’d really come to a consensus about what course they’re going to take on AVI.

    They advanced conflicting bills which give them the option of making their decisions next week and enacting some measures and letting others die.

    And that means that the public really doesn’t get the usual week to examine Council’s proposed solution to a critical policy dilemma. Members could decide next Thursday morning what they want to do, pick the bills they want to approve and do it all in a couple of hours.

    In fairness, Council’s likely course seems clear. It appears they’re headed toward adopting the change to market value assessments, giving the school district most of the money they’re counting on, raising a business tax to help fund schools, and adopting measures to ease sticker shock on vulnerable taxpayers.

    And it isn’t quite the first time they’ve done something like like this.

    But I don’t want them to get out of the habit of deliberating on an issue, making a decision, and letting it stand for the world to see for a week before giving it the final nod.

    In a world of cynical manipulation, it’s an extra measure of accountability that’s worth honoring.

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