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At 17, I was City Council’s youngest aide. I saw lethargy and dysfunction.

If the government worked as intended, once a piece of legislation became law, the mayor would implement and enforce it. That is not currently the case.

Jemille Duncan at City Hall earlier this year when he was a legislative aide for Councilmember Cindy Bass.
Jemille Duncan at City Hall earlier this year when he was a legislative aide for Councilmember Cindy Bass.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When I joined City Council as an aide in June 2021, I was the youngest aide on staff. I decided to be an aide in Council because — after having worked as a legislative aide for State Sen. Sharif Street for three years — I fell in love with writing laws and making direct impacts.

Until I left this August for college, I led the legislative teams of Councilmember Cindy Bass and former Councilmember Bobby Henon, advising them and writing their legislation. In this role, I noticed that the constituents I interacted with were infrequently concerned with lawmaking — Council’s principal function. They were, instead, concerned with the mayor and his administration’s lack of enforcement of those laws.

More times than I can count, people asked, “Why hasn’t the city stopped folks from dumping trash in the vacant lot across the street?” or “What’s with abandoned cars clogging residential parking on our block?”

Philadelphians want answers. And the truth is that Council’s prohibitions on issues like illegal dumping and abandoning cars amount to nothing when the mayor and his administration don’t enforce them. Without enforcement, Council’s laws are just words on paper.

Without enforcement, Council’s laws are just words on paper.

If the government worked as intended, once a piece of legislation became law, the mayor would implement and enforce it. This is what Philadelphians expect. But consistent enforcement is not a given because of the nuanced realities of city government.

Having worked in City Hall, I’ve learned that the root of this lack of enforcement often boils down to three things: bureaucratic sloth, intergovernmental disputes, and insufficient staffing.

The city being short of roughly 4,000 employees has produced a staggering staffing dilemma, contributing to the backlog of over 34,000 abandoned car complaints and thousands of streetlight outages. Our understaffed city government is crippling under pressure — and people can tell.

To get results, many Philadelphians skip reporting issues directly to the administration through their 311 hotline. Instead, they call Council members’ offices to fast-track their complaints. Having your Council member’s support could be the difference between waiting a few weeks vs. a few days for trash to be collected on your block.

This means that, for Council members, legislating is only half the job. The other half is arm-twisting the mayor and city departments for enforcement. Sometimes, Council’s arm-twisting is in response to staffing shortages. Other times, their arm-twisting is a reaction to bureaucratic sloth.

Take gun violence as an example. Last year, Council allocated funding for security cameras at recreation centers, and in 2020 they budgeted money for the Police Department to hire unarmed public safety officers. The cameras would help police catch violent offenders, and the public safety officers would handle nonviolent incidents, freeing up police officers’ time so they can focus on violent crime.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke recently criticized the mayor because neither of those plans has come to full fruition. He said, “it’s all about the implementation and the enactment of the appropriations that we made. … We appropriate. The administration implements.”

The money is there, but the administration isn’t using it. And Council can’t compel them to do so. There are also instances when a law may go unenforced because of intergovernmental disputes about whether it was within Council’s authority to pass it in the first place. This is when matters get hairy. The entity tasked with implementing that legislation has to make a choice: Should they err on the side of legal caution, opting not to enforce that law? Or should they enforce the law, possibly provoking a lawsuit?

Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr., representing the 4th Council District, is now mired in this dilemma.

» READ MORE: At 18, he’s a Philly City Council aide, a Gates Scholar, and the author of 62 pieces of legislation

In 2019, he passed a bill that sought to establish the Philadelphia Gun Violence Protection program, allowing courts to temporarily seize firearms from those who are a danger to themselves or the public. But Jones, joined by 10 other Council members, recently passed a resolution scolding the courts for not implementing the Philadelphia Gun Violence Protection program — likely because state law preempts Philadelphia from implementing its own gun regulations.

Frustrated by the courts’ inaction, Jones blasted them during Council’s first in-person session, saying, “You will not just say ‘I don’t like City Council’s law, I’m going to ignore it.’”

But ignoring Council’s laws is often what the mayor, his administration, and other entities, like courts, do. Usually, their cold-shouldering of Council’s laws can be traced back to insufficient staffing, sluggish bureaucrats, and intergovernmental disputes. And there is little Council can directly do to change this.

All Council members can do is publicly gripe or privately cajole the mayor and members of his administration who stifle enforcement.

When implementation is an issue, public frustration is better directed at whatever entity is tasked with enforcement, rather than at Council. Much of the blame for the current state of our city falls on Mayor Jim Kenney’s shoulders.

Jemille Q. Duncan is a public policy professional, columnist, and Gates Scholar at Swarthmore College. He is the former aide of two Council members and a state senator. @jq_duncan

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