LAST MONTH, the state Supreme Court struck a blow for openness and transparency by ordering City Council to allow public comment during every session.
Council, which allowed testimony only at committee hearings, is now required to give the public a chance to speak during full sessions as well.
Call it another step forward on the long path to making local government more accessible to ordinary citizens. Anyone can testify for up to 3 minutes by signing up beforehand (Call the Council clerk's office at 215-686-3410 to get on the list). Residents and taxpayers are invited to testify, as long as they stick to a bill or resolution under consideration.
In the past, we've criticized Council for not doing enough to engage the public in the legislative process. This ruling helps address some of those concerns, as do the sensible guidelines adopted to bring Council into compliance.
To its credit, Council has also managed to make progress without being ordered to act by the Supreme Court. During the last budget cycle, members held special hearings on nights and weekends. There were also events held in several neighborhoods, like North Philly and West Oak Lane. Both of these moves opened up the process to working people.
Even more should be done. For starters, we can't understand why Council seems so behind the times on technology. The city's inability to provide Internet access to the public during Council meetings - City Hall's thick walls are apparently kryptonite to wi-fi - seems antiquated in the age of citizen blogging.
There is also no way for the public to submit comments through Council's website. More fundamentally, the website lacks some basic information that the public should be able to easily access: no listing of salaries, staff, or even the most basic of budgetary information. That's unacceptable, especially for a body that spends so much time scrutinizing the budgets of other departments.
Legislation is on a searchable database, but most of the documents are incomprehensible to someone without a law degree. We'd like to see plain-English explanations of bills' being considered by Council, with an estimate about the cost. This is already done by the state Legislature, a body hardly known for being open to the public. If you have more ideas for Council, post them at www.thecityhowl.com, a place where citizens can review city services. *