City Council President Darrell L. Clarke's proposal to put the duties of Philadelphia's Department of Licenses and Inspections and six other agencies under a new department received some pushback Tuesday from people in the development and building community.
Despite the concerns raised, Council's committee on law and governance unanimously approved the bill for a full Council vote.
Clarke's bill would create a cabinet-level Department of Planning and Development to take over functions now handled by seven entities, including L&I, the Planning Commission, the Historical Commission, and the Housing Authority. Creating such a department requires voters to approve a City Charter change.
Because of Council's winter break, the soonest the bill could pass is Jan. 29 - plenty of time to get the issue on the May ballot, which Clarke wants.
Most of the seven witnesses who testified Tuesday said they agreed with Clarke's call for streamlining the development and planning agencies, but had issues with his bill as written. Suggestions ranged from including community development in the proposed housing division, to having a stand-alone buildings unit under a public-safety umbrella.
All seven said more discussion was needed on the plan's details.
"A change so dramatic should not be put into place without the informed input of all stakeholders," said Craig Schelter, executive director of the Development Workshop, an advocacy group.
Clarke called the testimony "encouraging" and said he would consider the issues raised. But it was hard to gauge what, if anything, might change in the bill.
Some testimony said L&I "should not be part of this proposal, and there was other testimony that they are supportive of L&I being part of this proposal," Clarke said afterward. He said he still believes L&I should be under development and planning.
A witness who differed with that view was City Treasurer Nancy Winkler, whose daughter, Anne Bryan, was one of six people killed in the June 5, 2013, Center City building collapse that triggered intense scrutiny of L&I.
"Development trumped public safety on June 5," Winkler testified. "This tragedy underscored . . . how the city's building safety oversight is in need of reform."
Winkler supports recommendations made by a blue-ribbon panel Mayor Nutter formed after the collapse to study L&I. Nutter has yet to act upon many of the panel's recommendations, such as splitting L&I into two. Said Winkler, "It's time for us to hear from the mayor."
Lawyer Peter Vaira, who led the panel, said Clarke's bill goes against its finding that L&I should have a public safety agenda as opposed to a development focus. Following the panel's recommendations, Nutter moved L&I from the oversight of his deputy mayor for commerce and economic development to his deputy for public safety.
Clarke's bill "would take the city back into the inherent conflict of combining development and building safety," Vaira testified.
Clarke - who has opposed numerous Nutter initiatives - said many cities put licensing, inspections, and code enforcement under planning and development.
The deputy mayor for economic development, Alan Greenberger, says the city is open-minded about the bill but wants further discussion. Clarke said he will follow up with the administration to try to sort out issues and get the measure on the May ballot.
"At the end of the day I think it's important for us to move on this," he said.