The decades-old Philadelphia ordinance used in legal arguments to halt the closing of 11 branch libraries yesterday has been a bone of contention from its start.
In essence it states: No city-owned facility "shall be closed, abandoned, or allowed to go into disuse" without the expressed approval of City Council.
Council passed the ordinance in 1988 after a legislative fight over the closing of two fire stations. Mayor W. Wilson Goode, who contended that the ordinance violated the city's Home Rule Charter, vetoed it. Council promptly overrode the veto.
Goode's administration challenged the law in Common Pleas Court and won, then the case was remanded for more findings after Council members, including ordinance sponsor David Cohen, successfully appealed to Commonwealth Court.
"I felt that closing facilities is within the purview of the mayor," Goode said yesterday. "We elect people to lead. Sometimes it's difficult to try to respond to all the people who want to tell you how to lead. But in the end we elect one person to govern."
Yesterday's challenge to Mayor Nutter's move to close the libraries turned on the plaintiffs' contention that by not bringing the decision before Council for its approval, Nutter violated the law by ignoring it.
"The executive power lies with the mayor. The legislative power lies exclusively with Council," said lawyer Sophie Bryan, an aide to Councilman Bill Green. Bryan was one of the plaintiffs' lawyers who argued before Common Pleas Court Judge Idee C. Fox.
"There is no provision in the charter, or any other body of law," Bryan said, "that gives the executive power to decide that a law is not valid."
Although lawyers for the city argued that Nutter had no obligation to bring the matter to Council because some of the libraries could be "repurposed" as "knowledge centers," and thus aren't really closing, Fox was not persuaded because, she said, those proposals are not final or even in writing.
"Closure is closure," said Fox, who found that library users would suffer "irreparable harm" under Nutter's plan, and who enjoined the administration from closing the libraries without Council approval or court order.
"The victor today was the law of the city of Philadelphia," Green said.
Nutter "emphatically disagreed" with the decision.
Speaking before the Inquirer editorial board yesterday for a look back at the first year of his administration, he characterized the ruling as "an absolute assault on the city's Home Rule Charter" that "would lead to tremendously difficult circumstances in terms of the running of the city."
Later, in a statement, he added: "This decision is larger than an opinion on these particular library facilities. It fundamentally alters the relationship between the mayor and City Council. The city would grind to a halt if consensus of 18 independently elected officials were required for every decision.
"On this basis alone," he said, the city will appeal the court's ruling as soon as possible.