As the poorest large city in America, Philadelphia provides massive challenges to its legislative body, even before adding a pandemic that has impacted low income people disproportionately, and has taken away livelihoods, disrupted education, and emptied municipal coffers. Last Thursday, City Council came back to session after a legislative break of nearly three months, to begin grappling with this long and hugely complex to-do list. That includes the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 and shutdowns, economic recovery, a looming eviction crisis, gun violence unparalleled for decades, rising overdose deaths, municipal budget shortfall, a critical upcoming election, and a national reckoning over racism.
To Council’s credit, the body held seven hearings over the summer weeks — on gun violence, the 2020 primary, health disparities in COVID-19, and the economic recovery. The body’s public presence was a welcome change compared to previous summers, and should continue.
This moment in Philadelphia’s history requires the City Council to be able to multitask: respond to immediate threats, conduct oversight over the mistakes of the past, and plan boldly for the future.
Some of the immediate threats facing Philadelphia are not new, but exacerbated by the pandemic. Gun violence has spiked over the summer — with shooting victims up by 41% compared to this time last year and more 314 lives lost to homicides. The loss of jobs has also left in its wake an eviction crisis, to a city already struggling with homelessness — as the protest encampment on the Parkway underscored. Demands of police reform also deserve immediate attention.
Council’s role includes both legislation as well as holding hearings that involve the public in grappling with these problems.
Council did not waste time in the first meeting of the fall. Members introduced many resolutions and bills, and proposed hearings on recent shootings and the way evictions are executed, for example. Council also adopted Kendra Brooks' bill to expand paid sick leave so that workers could take time off to quarantine — which could be critical in coming months. Other measures that can help Philadelphia weather this storm is a proposed extension to the City’s eviction moratorium through the end of the year.
To help the city survive, Council needs to be able to work effectively with the Mayor to find ways to support schools, workers, and businesses with the assumption that a resurgence of COVID-19 is possible — if not likely.
Working with the Kenney administration does not mean letting it off the hook.
There are still many unanswered questions about the city’s response to the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer: who decided to abandon the original staffing plan of the first night of protest, who approved the use of the closed House of Correction to hold detainees, who was involved in decisions to use tear gas on protestors, and who approved the use of counterterrorism units to respond to peaceful protest?
City Council can help Philadelphia finally get answers.
The hearings on the police response proposed by Councilmembers Helen Gym and Curtis Jones should be designed to allow residents to share experiences and for officials to answer these questions.
In the upcoming spring, when Kenney will introduce his next budget, Philadelphia will still be recovering from its current $750 million hole for the year — or find itself in an even deeper one. The recession, coinciding with calls to defund the police, make this the perfect moment to demand zero-based budgeting. The idea, discussed for decades and once championed by Kenney, is for each department to have to explain and defend its budget, from scratch, every year. The process requires every department to account for every dollar. This is more critical than ever: What is Philadelphia getting for the $727 million budget to the Police Department? Or $9.5 million to the Office of Violence Prevention? Or $160 million to Public Health? or the $42 million to City Council itself? In the current crisis, every dollar counts, and should be accounted for.
By instructing each department to start its budget review now, Council can impose new disciplines on departments that can generate savings and make the City focus on efforts that show results.
In a time rife with uncertainty, one thing is clear: Responding with the tools of the past won’t cut it.