TWO WEEKS AGO, Philadelphia City Council passed a non-binding resolution calling for more debate and discussion of the Nutter administration's proposal to close 11 libraries to deal with the $108 million deficit facing city government.
In addition to asking for more time, the resolution also called on Council to conduct hearings on the libraries. As resolutions go, it wasn't exactly an act of courage. In fact, given the outcry that the library closings have caused throughout the city, Council would have been dumb, or blind, not to let the public speak out. Besides, hearings aren't exactly complicated to pull off. So why is Council President Anna Verna refusing to schedule them?
"We in Council are completely powerless at this time," Verna explains. "It's strictly up to the mayor." (For the full quote, go to www.ourmoneyphilly.com)
She believes that additional hearings will only give the public "false hope" that library closures can be reversed and the town hall meetings run by the mayor provide ample opportunity for public input.
Way to show brave leadership, President Verna!
Let us count the ways she is wrong:
First, City Council is not powerless. Philadelphia may have a strong-mayor government, but Council could hold up parts of Nutter's budget plan - like the suspension of tax cuts or increase in city fees - to force concessions in other areas. Sitting on the sidelines is a political choice, not a requirement mandated by the Home Rule Charter.
Second, the town hall meetings are simply not enough. First, they're not part of the public record. Unlike a City Council hearing, the forums are controlled by the Nutter administration. City officials decide the agenda, who speaks, and for how long. That's fine, but let's not pretend it's a substitute for oversight. We have to rely on City Council to ask the tough questions.
After all, elected officials have access to a lot more information than the general public has. And, if Council doesn't get the answers it's seeking, it has the power to issue subpoenas.
Public hearings are the oil that keeps the wheels of democracy turning. Verna's decision to squash the hearings isn't bad just for democracy, it could end up being bad for Mayor Nutter. His budget cuts have sparked outrage partially because the public was left out of the decision-making process. This latest move is another troubling example of citizen input being sidelined during the financial crisis. *