On Monday, city councils across the state inaugurated new mayors, elected presidents and — in one case — presided over a screaming match.
For all the mayors and city council members elected in November, the time has come to assume the mantle of power. On the first really cold day of winter, and the first business day of 2016, municipalities across Pennsylvania inaugurated new leaders — or welcomed the old ones back.
Once the new city council is in place, most cities hold a reorganization meeting in which they elect a president and vice-president of council. The president, who usually serves for two years in that role, determines who chairs committees and what legislation will be added to the agenda.
What’s in store for these cities and their leaders in 2016? Philadelphia, Reading and Altoona all have mayoral changes to contend with.
There is, arguably, no mayor in Pennsylvania more powerful than the mayor of Philadelphia. Jim Kenney, the city’s 99th mayor, capitalized on that power quickly.
He was inaugurated Monday morning at the Academy of Music. By the afternoon, he had signed six executive orders. Five of those orders created new positions, or gave new life to old positions, in the city government. Philadelphia will now have a Chief Integrity Officer, a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and a Director of Planning and Development, among others.
Kenney also signed an executive order restoring the city’s status as a “sanctuary city.” Philadelphia police will no longer cooperate with requests issued by federal immigration officials to detain illegal immigrants. In the final weeks of his term, former Mayor Michael Nutter bowed to federal pressure and reversed positions on this issue, angering immigration activists and worrying the Latino community.
Kenney, a South Philly native and veteran city councilor, was sworn in by newly elected state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty. According to Philly.com, Dougherty and Kenney grew up in the same neighborhood.
Kenney remarked to his childhood friend, “We did pretty good, Kevin, don’t you think?”
The 17-member city council voted current president Darrell Clarke into another term. Councilman Bobby Henon will replace Curtis Jones as majority leader.
Reading’s new Mayor Wally Scott may not have signed executive orders on day one. But he’s putting himself, and the city government, on a timeline.
At his inauguration Monday, the former District Judge promised “a lot of positive changes” in the first 90 days of his term, according to the Reading Eagle.
Scott ran on a platform of decreasing crime, regulating the water authority and offering fair punishment for parking and truancy violations. He defeated incumbent Vaughn D. Spencer in the primary and won the general election handily.
Spencer, and the city as a whole, is under investigation by the FBI over a pay-to-play scheme.
Altoona has the same mayor as before, but he’s holding a very different position. Matt Pacifico was inaugurated Monday as the city’s first full-time mayor since the 1980s.
As part of the city’s move into Home Rule, the full-time mayor is expected to serve as a business and government advocate for the city. Pacifico, who served as part-time mayor for two years before this election, is eager to take on the new challenge.
In a November debate, he said the full-time role would give him “the ability to be at City Hall everyday to really work hand-in-hand with the city manager.” Pacifico is leaving his family bakery business to accept this job.
He’s operating in uncharted territory, but there are some perks: the salary increased from $4,800 a year to $75,000 a year, plus benefits.
Bethlehem didn’t have a mayoral election, but the city council race yielded some historic results. According to local television station WFMZ, this is the first time in history that the city inaugurated two Hispanic city council members.
Olga Negron is an active community organizer. She has worked on Latino and community issues in the Lehigh Valley for 20 years, and served on the statewide Latino commission since 2003. She was sworn in by her friend, Pennsylvania Secretary of State, Pedro Cortes.
The other Hispanic representative is Michael Colon. Colon is the volunteer coordinator for a local nursing home. He has served on the city’s civil service board and the city human resources commission.
Shawn Martell was also sworn-in for a first term. City council president William Reynolds was re-appointed to that position, and sworn in for a third term.
Like Reading, Allentown is part of an FBI probe over possible corruption. Unlike Reading, the mayor implicated in the investigation is still in office. Ed Pawlowski has another two years left in his term.
At Monday night’s city council meeting, two new council members and one incumbent were sworn in. Ray O’Connell was unanimously elected to be council president. If the mayor is unable to complete his term for whatever reason, the council president would take over in that role.
And things do seem to be heating up around the investigation. Originally, Monday’s agenda included the re-inauguration of Mary Ellen Koval as city controller, but she did not attend and was not sworn in. Now, the Allentown Morning Call reports that Koval has resigned. She has not been charged with anything, but she has been investigated and interviewed as part of the probe. Koval was first elected to the position in 2011 with the help of Pawlowski.
Scranton has many familiar faces on city council and behind the mayor’s desk. But Monday’s reorganization meeting brought one important change. Joe Weschler was elected president of the city council for a two-year term.
He’s facing a tough challenge: the city has a severely distressed pension fund, owes significant debt for after a union arbitration and has recently sold its sewer system. Weschler told the city council, “the next two years are going to be the most important and challenging to Scranton in its 150-year history,” according to the Scranton Times-Tribune.
Weschler replaces Bob McGoff, who died of cancer on Nov. 19. The Times-Tribune reported that the city council named McGoff’s 22-year-old grandson to his seat to serve the last hour of his term.
Harrisburg has three new faces on the seven-member city council. According to PennLive, the new councilors were all supported by Mayor Eric Papenfuse, and that could reduce tensions between the mayor and the city council.
But Papenfuse shouldn’t expect it all to be smooth sailing. Wanda Williams was elected to a third term as president of the council. She and the mayor have often butted heads, and he worked to get her ally, Brad Koplinski, voted off of the council.
I promise we didn’t forget about you, Steel City. But it would be easy to: Pittsburgh had a supremely uneventful swearing-in and reorganization meeting.
Mayor Bill Peduto has two years left in his term. The new city council looks identical to the old one: each of the five incumbents won their elections. And Bruce Kraus was re-elected as president by a margin of 8-1. The only nay vote came from the councilwoman he replaced as president in 2014.
Rather than end on that slow note, take a look at Pittsburgh’s next door neighbor, the city of McKeesport. If Pittsburgh wins “Most Consistent,” this small city wins “Most Dramatic.” The meeting ended in a shouting match before it even really began.
The issue? Newly elected city councilor Corey Sanders wasn’t allowed to be inaugurated due to criminal charges from 23 years ago. Sanders plead “no contest” to felony drug charges and spent four years in prison.
Today, Sanders is a father of four, owns a barbershop and is a Deacon at his church. But District Attorney Stephen Zappala wrote a letter, read by the city solicitor, that said Sanders is constitutionally disqualified to hold that office. He would need a pardon from the governor to be sworn in.
According to CBS Pittsburgh, though, Sanders found a way around that. He was sworn in earlier that afternoon at City Hall. It’s not yet clear if that will stand.
The letter from the District Attorney was greeted with chaos from the crowd: shouting, yelling back and forth, and some profanity. The meeting was quickly adjourned.
Happy 2016, and good governance to you all!