Next month we’re going to have the kind of primary that generally occurs only once every eight years. On May 17 the entire City Council will be up for nomination, and there will be no competitive mayoral primary to distract us. That’s because, as is usually the case in these eight year cycles, there will be no meaningful opposition to the incumbent mayor as he runs for re-election.
So the spotlight will be on the Council races, without a mayoral race operating as a distraction. With that spotlight on them, challengers can get attention, and lots of change is possible. Indeed, we know that there will be at least 5 new Councilmembers elected because that many incumbents are retiring. If a few challengers defeat incumbents, we could have close to half of Council consist of newcomers.
There are progressive newcomers running for most of the open seats. A number of other good candidates are running against incumbents. But there are also any number of old guard politicians who see the race as no more than an opportunity to advance themselves to the next level of political power. It’s up to us to be sure that the new Council doesn’t just have a new list of names, but a better list of ideas and policies as well.
But, many of you might say, how important is Council anyway? Don’t we have a strong Mayor form of government in Philly where the Chief Executive makes most policy choices? Many people view Council as just another place in which corrupt politicians go to do their thing. If we just get people in there who are honest, we don’t really need to concern ourselves with their policy positions.
Well, the truth is Council has powers whose exercise can make the difference in how you live your life in Philly ever single day. It’s not just about preventing corruption; it’s about advancing progressive policies that promote justice and sustainability in our City. Here’s a brief rundown of what Council has the power to do:
*Set tax rates on city and school district taxes, both business and personal;
*Pass the annual city operating and capital budget, and amend it throughout the year;
*Approve, amend and review the City Community Development Block Grant Plan (for housing development)
*Put amendments to the City Charter on the ballot for action by the voters, including, if it so chooses, abolition of the Sheriff’s Office, the City Commissioners, and the Register of Wills;
*Enact and amend the zoning code;
*Decide whether private property should be condemned in connection with any public or private redevelopment;
*Approve sale of City land;
*Authorize city borrowing;
*Decide whether to close or sell City facilities;
*Regulate ethics and campaign finance;
*Define the governance structure for PGW;
*Regulate business behavior, (such as whether or not retailers can use plastic bags; whether or not businesses must provide sick leave);
*Regulate individual behavior (such as setting juvenile curfews, where people can smoke, etc.);
*Approve all city contracts whose terms exceed one year;
*Provide oversight to all city agencies, policies and programs, and if necessary subpoena witnesses in support of investigations;
*Regulate the removal of trash through recycling and other means;
*Establish programs for the health, safety and welfare of citizens.
*Establish traffic controls and directions on city streets.
*Regulate the investment of the City’s pension fund, and determine pension benefits.
In short, there’s little you do every day, when you drive your car, turn on your gas, put out your trash, take your kids to school, pay your taxes, call upon city workers to fix a pothole, seek response to a police or fire emergency, work with neighbors to keep your local library open, and even try to get a breath of clean air, that doesn’t involve decisions and priorities established by City Council.
So, if you think it’s important that some or all of Council’s powers are exercised for the benefit of the public rather than powerful corporate interests, then you need to care about who earns the title “Councilperson” in the next election.
Stan Shapiro is Vice-Chair, Neighborhood Networks
NewsWorks will host an Eighth District candidates debate on April 27, 2011 at 7 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, 35 W. Chelten Ave, in Germantown.