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Karen Heller: What happened to the glory days when it resembled the Blue Horizon?

City Council's peace on earth

At City Council last week, there was general collegiality among members, including Jim Kenney. Testimony on a tax bill was intelligent and reasoned.
At City Council last week, there was general collegiality among members, including Jim Kenney. Testimony on a tax bill was intelligent and reasoned.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

Being a glutton for punishment, last week I went twice to City Council, the people's community theater I'm tempted to label "free" except taxpayers pay so dearly for it.

Consider the holiday - excuse me, Christmas - break.

This year's last session occurs Dec. 16; the first next year, Jan. 27.

That's 41 silent days in between, six weeks in which Philadelphia's legislative body will not legislate.

This is either a good or bad thing, depending on your point of view.

The time allows Council members to provide tidings of great joy for constituents. Such service gives incumbents an advantage getting reelected, which we must pay for.

Behold, I too bring you glad tidings! There were two days of testimony on Council members Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Bill Green's tax bill. It was intelligent and reasoned, bordering on wonkery, the sort of policy debate you hear in Washington but rarely on the fourth floor of City Hall.

The issues were so complex yet so important, I feared some Council members' heads might spontaneously explode from the stress of paying attention, though not that of Frank Rizzo - the Republican councilman representing Aruba - because he was once again in the islands.

The takeaway from the testimony was that nobody in any Philadelphia business, construction, real estate, or Stephen Starr, makes more than a teensy-weensy profit.

That, or accountants have reached a new level of creativity and are the true wizards in today's economy, able to make any net income magically disappear.

As a taxpayer, I welcome Council's ambition in handling tough issues and I applaud the general collegiality among its members.

As a columnist, I'm seriously bummed. Even appalled.

What happened to the glory days of old when members carried grudges forever and the place resembled, in behavior, emotion, and left hooks, the famed Blue Horizon?

Now, we have peace on earth. Jim Kenney's face has ceased mirroring the Homeland Security risk chart, no longer registering "severe" whenever Green speaks. Council President Anna Verna no longer shoots daggers at anyone who dares disrupt order in her house.

Jack Kelly actually spoke, even though the subject wasn't critters. Reporters almost fell off their chairs. "The timing of this legislation seems to require more study of this," he said, exhibiting the courage of someone burdened by neither term limits nor an engaged electorate.

Philadelphia residents and taxpayers have always been able to offer public testimony at Council hearings on specific bills, but Thursday marked the first time they would be allowed to address a regular meeting. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that Council's restrictions on public speech violated the 1993 Sunshine Act. That law requires "a reasonable opportunity" for residents and taxpayers at meetings "to comment on matters of concern, official action, or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action."

What, pray tell - excuse the religious verbiage - would happen now that any Philadelphian was able to appear in Council and fulminate for three full minutes?

Take a moment to look at the sheer rage and misanthropy, to say nothing of the creative orthography, posted on's comments - little of which can be printed here - and imagine the live renditions possible in City Hall.

Frankly, I was hoping for an open-mike morning, an oratorical version of American Idol but, you know, rocking it 700-level style.

I expected an oratorio of complaint from the people who have made bitching a world-class sport.

Registering to speak is easy, a phone call to the chief clerk's office before 5 p.m. Wednesday in advance of Thursday's session, or in Council Chambers right before the 10 a.m. meeting. Madame President even allows people who haven't registered to speak spontaneously.

And you know how many people stood to express their sentiments?


A bridge game.

Three tow-truck operators - a bill on the floor would shift regulation of their industry from L&I to the Parking Authority, equal sources of delight - and attorney Darrell Zaslow, who spent three years arguing the case to open discussion.

Zaslow complained (for five minutes, mind you, not the allotted three) that residents and taxpayers should be able to complain about anything, not just bills and resolutions on the Council's calendar. He promises to return Thursday to be heard again.

C'mon, Philadelphians, you can do better. You're mouthier than this.

Given the gentility now on display in Council - it's like a Jane Austen novel - we must look to the citizens to put the passion and dysfunction back in city governance.

Folks, you've got exactly two Thursdays left this year to be heard.

And while it's doubtful that any Philadelphia resident or taxpayer needs ammunition for subject matter, may I gently suggest Council's 41-day Christmas break?