As Philadelphia City Council returned Thursday for its first meeting of the new term, bills were offered that would add teeth to minority hiring, look hard at how schools have been hurt by years of budget cuts, and shed light on the businesses that receive big tax subsidies.
But the meeting's most compelling moment came when a nonbinding resolution was offered suggesting that two Muslim holidays become official city and School District holidays.
Speaking before a chamber packed with men wearing Muslim prayer caps and women wearing hijabs, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said an acquaintance had questioned his timing, considering the recent shooting of a Philadelphia police officer by a man who said he was acting on behalf of Islam and the tension surrounding calls for Muslims to be banned from entry to the United States.
"I thought on it. And I said words that I'm paraphrasing from another great man. 'If not now, when? If not us, who?' " Jones said, referring to Hillel the Elder, the Jewish religious leader of the first century B.C. Supporters, part of an alliance that calls itself the Philadelphia Eid Coalition, recited the quote with him.
After Council passed the resolution on a voice vote with no dissent, many of those supporters celebrated by saying, "Allahu akbar," Arabic for "God is the greatest."
The resolution urges the city and the School District to make the holidays official, moves that would have to be made separately.
It received initial support from Mayor Kenney, who said that the city was studying what the added holidays would cost but that "from a philosophical, fairness standpoint," he agreed.
"I understand and appreciate the Muslim community's interest in this and their feeling of being left out," he said. "I would like to get to that point where we recognize all religious holidays or no religious holidays. If you want to do some, you have to do everybody's."
Jones, who is Muslim, also took his request to the School Reform Commission (SRC) Thursday night, where he told the meeting that Muslims feel like "second-class" citizens. SRC Chairwoman Marjorie Neff could not immediately be reached for comment.
The two holidays in question are Eid al-Fitr, celebrated after the monthlong observance of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, celebrated at the conclusion of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The holidays, the dates of which change each year, because Islam follows a lunar calendar, will take place in September and July, respectively, this year.
Philadelphia, which has an estimated 200,000 Muslims, would not be the first city to add the holidays to the official calendar. Schools in New York City added them to the academic calendar last year.
Philadelphia city workers currently have 11 paid holidays, two of them religious: Christmas and Good Friday. The School District also recognizes Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
Jones said he introduced a nonbinding resolution rather than trying to mandate a change through legislation because adding two holidays would affect the municipal unions, and he wants to first begin a dialogue with those groups.
Fernando Gallard, the district's spokesman, said that under current rules, if Muslim students want to take off one of the Eid holidays, they can do so as an excused absence, with a note from a family member. He said teachers can take the holiday off, receiving one-third pay, with a note from the head of the religious institution they attend.
New faces, new agenda.
Thursday was the first session for Council's five new members: Democrats Allan Domb, Derek Green, Helen Gym, and Cherelle L. Parker, and Republican Al Taubenberger. Several of the freshmen kicked off the term by calling for hearings to further examine areas where they could choose to legislate down the road.
Parker wants to study the impact of reverse mortgages, which require no monthly payments but have pitfalls.
Green wants to look at whether the city can utilize so-called social impact bonds, a funding model for social programs.
Gym wants to dissect how years of funding cuts have hurt the School District, the first step of what she said will be a "restorative agenda" for the district.
Gym's resolution was one of three introduced regarding city schools, a sign Council's hyper-focus on the district isn't subsiding in the new term. Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell called for hearings on the general status of public schools. Green said he wanted to explore the condition of district buildings, after a worker at F.S. Edmunds Elementary School was injured this month when a boiler exploded.
Gym also introduced a bill that would require businesses that receive tax breaks to file annual reports detailing the value of the subsidy and what jobs have been created in return. Gym said the city is providing millions in tax breaks to spur job development.
"The problem is we have no way to track it," she said.
Also Thursday, President Darrell L. Clarke introduced a bill that would allow the city to penalize employers who do not deliver on commitments to have a diverse workforce. The legislation would apply to employers who, as part of receiving a contract or other financial incentive from the city, have agreed to diversity hiring standards.
If the city's Office of Economic Opportunity found a company had not made a good-faith effort to meet its commitments, the city could bar it from receiving another contract or financial incentive for up to three years.
While the legislation is not focused on the building trades, which have been criticized in the past for a lack of diversity, Clarke focused on them in comments after Thursday's session. He said Kenney has stressed the need for the trades to become more diverse, and representatives of the trades have been receptive.
"We've got to do better," the Council president said. "And everybody has committed that they want to do better. So we're in a position now to do something legislatively and to give some very aggressive enforcement powers."