LAST WEEK, the Daily News started profiling the City Council races that, come Election Day, promise more change than that august body has seen in decades. Throughout the city, we're also helping to sponsor debates - tonight at 7, candidates for the 6th District square off at the Tacony Free Library on Torresdale Avenue, moderated by Philly.com editor Wendy Warren.
This is the first time in my lifetime in which we actually have a chance to end up with a City Council that doesn't suck. This is the assembly, remember, that former Mayor Bill Green once coined "the worst legislative body in the Free World" - right around the time that then-Councilmen John Street and Franny Rafferty were rolling around on the floor, engaging in pathetic fisticuffs.
Today, while surpassing that low bar, Council is still an embarrassment, in large part because of its collective hubris. For too long, this group has played you for a fool. Let us count the ways: You know all about DROP, the lump-sum early-retirement program, never meant to apply to elected officials, that goes to members who "retire" for a day, collect their windfall, and then resume their duties. Outgoing Council President Anna Verna seemed to speak for more than just herself when she said of DROP, "I think I'm entitled to it."
What's worse than the program, though, is Council's dissembling now that you care about DROP. After buying time by commissioning yet another study about DROP's costs to the city, Council has put off holding the long-promised hearings. But don't be surprised. Such arrogance is part of a pattern, like when Frank Rizzo (one of the two remaining members, along with Marian Tasco, scheduled to take advantage of DROP) told Philadelphia mag, "I wouldn't want to bring my personal car into some of these neighborhoods," when asked to justify the expense of his city-owned vehicle. Then there's the fact that Council exempts itself from transparency when it comes to its $15 million budget, literally refusing to tell you how it spends your money.
Or how about the fact that many Council members hold full-time jobs in addition to working for you? Bill Green, for example, gets six figures from a law firm - besides his $118,000 Council salary. Then again, maybe there's time to hold down multiple jobs at once, given the fact that Council takes the following breaks from, uh, governing: 13 weeks in summer, five weeks around Christmas and New Year's, and one week each for Election Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, President's Day, and, yes, even Columbus Day.
That's 23 weeks off for a six-figure gig that has seemed to be a kind of safety net for the offspring of the political class. Sitting on Council, after all, are names like Green, Goode, Blackwell and Rizzo (not to mention Verna, whose father served before her). It's as if it's always 1978 in Philadelphia. A spot on Council has become not unlike an Eagles personal-seat license, a legacy bequeathed from one generation to the next.
Don't get me wrong. There are some good, committed people on Council. Green, in particular, has struck me as a guy who takes issues seriously. But we desperately need new blood; maybe a fresh crop of members won't treat the taxpayer with such disdain and will tackle real reform, such as doing away with the tradition of Councilmanic Prerogative, which effectively gives a lone member veto power over acts that would benefit the city as a whole.
Former Mayor John Street, who has been flirting with a Council comeback himself and who doesn't really qualify as "new blood," nonetheless suggests some other reforms: term limits, for example, so that people who were elected when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were president would be long gone 30 years later. And making the Council presidency an at-large seat, so that the president and the mayor's political interests more closely align.
There are great things happening in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, not much of it has been happening on Council, which seems mired in the old ways of doing things. But here's the great news: You finally have a chance to do something about that.
The Daily News editorial board makes its endorsements next week. But I'm asking you to vote against every incumbent on May 17. I'll give the first 120 of you who do so a T-shirt, designed by Fred Lavner of Novel- Tee company, which reads: "I'm Voting for a City Council That Doesn't Suck." Send me an email at email@example.com (with your shirt size!) and I'll get you a T-shirt.
C'mon, let's start a movement. We have nothing to lose but the sweetheart deals of our elected leaders.
Larry Platt is editor of the Daily News.
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