When Darrell L. Clarke called for a closed-door meeting with his colleagues before the start of a recent City Council meeting, it created a stir.
Staff, lobbyists, and bystanders shuffled out of the room, whispering about what could have prompted the rare executive session. When the doors swung open 10 minutes later, the typically guarded Clarke gave only a vague answer: They were discussing an "administrative" matter, he said.
It did not take long for the truth to seep out. The touchy topic?
Yes, the Council decrees given to honor a high school basketball team, declare a week recognizing a heritage group, or commemorate the work of a neighborhood nonprofit.
The honors are given often - and not always judiciously.
Recent recipients include a sorority honored 13 times since 2001 and that has a councilwoman among its members, a South Philly Italian restaurant that won a cooking competition for its homemade cavatelli in a blush sauce, and the British period drama Downton Abbey.
As that resolution, also honoring the local affiliate that aired the show, was being read, a heckler in the audience shouted out, "Is Downton Abbey about Philadelphia?"
No, it is not.
"The danger is you could be devaluing the currency at some point," said David Thornburgh, CEO of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "There's so many of these, no one of them is worth as much as it used to be."
Resolutions, which Clarke suggested members cut back on, are a legislative staple from the tiniest borough to the U.S. Senate. Here, they are often used to build relationships with constituents. Some say the motives are not always altruistic.
"They're gaining some favor to say, 'Hey, I gave you a resolution, I need your help on reelection,' " said Angel Ortiz, a former member of Council.
So far this year, Council has passed about 175 honorary resolutions. Nearly 50 more espoused a political stance, such as a resolution denouncing remarks made by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Council's three Republicans voted against them.)
Each has a cost, be it time, money, or both.
Keepsake copies cost the city $75 a piece. This year Council has ordered 184 of them at a cost of $13,800, according to Clarke spokeswoman Jane Roh.
Minutes to hours
About 60 recipients this year received their resolutions in person at the start of Council's weekly meeting. Like so much in city government, the presentations are often slow going.
Council members crowd at the front of the room. They take turns reading paragraphs of the resolution, often going off script to interject their own thoughts. The recipient makes a speech. They wrap up with photos, first a group shot and then poses with smaller groups, if anyone requests them.
They often do.
Council does this as many as four times each month - for a total of 13 hours of presentations so far this year, according to an Inquirer review of the meeting tapes.
The week before Clark's executive session, presentations took 1 hour and 10 minutes of a 2-hour-and-6-minute meeting.
While all of this is going on, people in the audience, including those waiting to give public comment, often grow frustrated.
"I sit next to these people who are like: 'What's going on? Why hasn't it started yet? Do I get to talk? I took off my morning from work,' " said one regular Council attendee.
It also draws confusion.
More serious honors
Out-of-town reporters at the June meeting where Council voted on Mayor Kenney's proposed soda tax exchanged more than a few perplexed glances when the meeting started with a mariachi performance. Council was honoring the departing director of the Mexican Consulate.
(It's not the only time a presentation came with a performance. When Council honored the grand marshal of the 246th annual St. Patrick's Day Parade, it was preceded by bagpipes and a jig by three Irish dancers.)
Zack Stalberg, the former Committee of Seventy director, called it all "a ridiculous distraction" that takes time from "more serious business."
Others are not so quick to dismiss the tradition. They say that amid lighthearted resolutions Council also recognizes the families of fallen police officers and firefighters, nonprofits on the front line of fighting poverty, and students who otherwise might never set foot in City Hall.
"Maybe it takes up some time, but there's nothing wrong with civic involvement," said longtime Philadelphia political consultant Neil Oxman. "And whether you get Ryan Howard to come in or some neighborhood association that's a town watch group, that's what the fabric of the city is."
Howard, the Phillies great, received a resolution last month.
Reviews for the more political resolutions are also mixed.
They don't come with lengthy presentations but can still drain time. When Council last month voted on a resolution rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade agreement Philadelphia is not party to, six members first spoke. Some spoke twice.
At a pause, Clarke sensed an opening and said he "better hurry up" and call for a vote.
One additional Council member demurred and turned off his microphone, ending the discussion after 19 minutes.
Clarke, according to a source familiar with last month's executive session, asked members to be more thoughtful with both kinds of resolutions.
They could start by giving them only to truly enthusiastic recipients.
Stalberg was not one of them. He remembers receiving a resolution when he left his job as editor at the Daily News in 2005 as "one of the more embarrassing experiences" of his life.
Asked where his copy is today, he laughed.
"I'm sure," he said, "it went right into the trash can."
You Say You Want A Resolution?
Here is a sampling of the people, organizations, and things City Council has graced with a resolution in recent years:
A song. Mayor Kenney honored the Eagles' fight song, "Fly, Eagles, Fly," when he was on Council. He finished the meeting with a performance for reporters.
A web-publishing platform. Dec. 5 is now WordPress Day in the city of Philadelphia.
A sorority. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown and former Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco are members of Delta Sigma Theta. The group has been honored 13 times since 2001. In 2013, Council recognized it twice in six weeks, on its 100th anniversary and on the Sixth Annual Philadelphia City Council Delta Day.
Every Philadelphian with a "legacy." Declaring Sept. 25 to Oct. 1 Legacy Week, the members listed a few individuals, living and deceased, by name but also sent out blanket praise to those "who have made major contributions to the Philadelphia community through their dedication, hard work, and creativity."
Themselves (and their fellow city employees). Council has proclaimed the week of May 1 to May 7 Public Service Recognition Week.
And, in full disclosure, the Inquirer and Daily News, as well as various staff members.
- Tricia L. NadolnyEndText