Possession of a couple of joints of pot is closer to being legally inconsequential in Philadelphia. City voters will get to voice an opinion on state control of the city schools. And a city councilman cast a potentially career-altering vote on principle.
Those were the highlights of City Council's session Thursday that brought passage of a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and of another that would put a referendum to voters to change the City Charter to immortalize opposition to the state-controlled School Reform Commission that oversees city schools.
It was the latter bill, which has no binding impact on how schools are run, that triggered a politically risky vote in sole opposition by at-large Councilman William Greenlee, who took a stand that the city's Home Rule Charter should not be meddled with in meaningless ways.
"I want to be consistent," Greenlee said, explaining that he has traditionally voted against such tampering.
The marijuana bill, which passed, 14-2, establishes a civil offense for possessing fewer than 30 grams of marijuana. Violators face a $25 fine, but no arrest or criminal record. In a compromise worked out between the bill's sponsor, Councilman James Kenney, and Mayor Nutter, the measure also includes a separate civil offense for public use of the drug, with a penalty of a $100 fine or up to nine hours of community service.
The legislation does not supersede state law, which still treats marijuana possession as a criminal offense, punishable by a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.
However, city officials say police officers will have the discretion to use the city code and not the harsher state statute when dealing with violators.
Kenney said Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey told him the department would begin adopting the civil offense around Oct. 20.
"The commissioner told me he is committed to making this work," Kenney said.
The referendum on state control of city schools was advanced by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. The bill actually calls for a referendum to alter the city Home Rule Charter to add a section "providing that the citizens of Philadelphia call upon the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the governor to abolish the School Reform Commission and return local control of Philadelphia schools."
The legislation has no practical impact other than offering Philadelphians who go to the polls an opportunity to express frustration with the state's handling of the fiscally troubled schools. As a political matter, support for the bill seemed a given among Council as the state's role in the school funding crisis has been widely reviled by the public.
Which might explain the somewhat tentative tone Greenlee took when he started to explain that, despite his support of the cause of school reform, he could not in good conscience vote on a measure that could ultimately alter the City Charter in a meaningless way.
As he spoke, he was drowned out by jeers and catcalls from bill supporters who filled the Council chamber.
Eventually, he finished speaking - and the bill passed, 15-1. It awaits Nutter's signature, which Blackwell said must be had by Friday if the referendum is to be on the ballot in November, as opposed to May.
"The mayor will give it the appropriate consideration," Mark McDonald, the mayor's spokesman, said when asked about the bill.
After the session, Greenlee, who is up for reelection next year, was buttonholed by a reporter as he left City Hall by himself. He acknowledged the political risk in his vote but tried to shrug it off.
"I said to somebody that I just hope they remember my votes for more money for the schools, votes that counted," he said. "Oh, well, it is all part of the job."