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Philly Council President Darrell Clarke orders special elections to fill two seats vacated by mayoral contenders

Clarke called for special elections for the two Council seats vacated by members who represented geographic districts. But he did not take action on two other vacancies for at-large seats.

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke has called for special elections for two of the four Council seats that are vacant.
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke has called for special elections for two of the four Council seats that are vacant.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke on Friday ordered special elections to fill the vacancies created by former Councilmembers Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Cherelle Parker, who both resigned this week to run for mayor.

Clarke notably did not order special elections for the vacancies created by the recent resignations of at-large Councilmembers Allan Domb, who is considering running in the mayoral election, and Derek Green, who announced Tuesday that he is running for mayor.

The two special elections will coincide with the Nov. 8 general election for state and federal races. Party ward leaders choose nominees for special elections.

Given that both districts are heavily Democratic, the picks of the party’s neighborhood ward leaders are all but guaranteed to fill out the remainder of Quiñones-Sánchez’s and Parker’s terms, which end in January 2024. As such, the outgoing members will both have significant sway over who their successors will be.

» READ MORE: Race to City Hall: Here's who is running for Philadelphia mayor in 2023

Quiñones-Sánchez has said she is backing her former chief of staff Quetcy Lozada for the job.

Sources said Parker, who is also the leader of the 50th Ward, intends to back Anthony Phillips, a Democratic committee person in her ward and the executive director of Youth Action, a nonprofit leadership and mentoring program for students. Phillips declined to comment Friday.

All Council seats, including those filled by special elections, will be on the ballot next year, along with the race to replace term-limited Mayor Jim Kenney.

Council includes 10 members who represent geographic districts, and seven at-large members who are elected citywide. Quiñones-Sánchez represents the Kensington-based 7th District, and Parker’s 9th District includes parts of North and Northwest Philadelphia. Green and Domb are at-large members.

At-large seats to be left unfilled

Clarke’s decision reflects a choice to prioritize district representatives, who perform an immense amount of constituent services in addition to legislating.

“It is vitally important that more than 339,000 residents of the Seventh and Ninth Districts have full, active representation in Council, with access to the specific kinds of constituent services and district-specific legislation that can only be provided by their district Councilmember,” Clarke said in a statement.

But not everyone sees the wisdom in leaving Domb’s and Green’s seats open.

Patrick Christmas, policy director of the good government group Committee of Seventy, said he “can’t think of a good reason why we would have those seats empty,” noting that at-large members contribute to Council’s work by approaching policy questions from a citywide perspective.

“Our at-large members are responsible for representing the entire city of Philadelphia, all Philadelphians, and naturally approach matters in a different way than their district Council counterparts,” Christmas said. “I would argue it’s important we have a full complement of City Council members as soon as we can.”

Philly mail ballots to be delayed

The special elections are delaying the distribution of mail ballots in Philadelphia for the 2022 general election by more than a week, or even two, as a result of separate provisions of state election law that are poorly aligned. One provision allows the city commissioners, which run Philadelphia elections, to distribute mail ballots up to 50 days before an election, which would be Sept. 19 this year.

Due to another provision of state law, however, Clarke was not able to order special elections until 60 days before the date of the election. That means that Friday was the first day he could issue the writs of election. The inclusion of the special elections will thus delay this year’s ballots going out because it takes at least a week and a half to finalize candidates for the special elections.

The mail ballots likely won’t go out until the beginning of October.

» READ MORE: The 2023 race for Philly mayor has begun. Here’s who’s running.

How the vacancies will affect Council

Council will hold its first meeting of its fall session on Thursday, and it will operate with four vacancies for months because new members cannot be seated until after the November election is certified.

There is debate in City Hall over how the unusually high number of vacancies will affect the way the body works, including over how many votes are required to pass bills. While many legislative bodies simply require a majority vote of members who are present to pass bills, that may not be the case for Council.

A 1987 city solicitor’s opinion held that bills must still obtain approval from a majority of the representatives of Council’s 17 seats in order to pass, even when there are fewer than 17 members at the time. That would mean bills would now require the approval of 9 of the 13 Council members to pass.

Additionally, the opinion held that overriding a mayoral veto, which requires a two-thirds vote, will still require 12 votes, as is usually the case, even in a depleted Council.

Solicitor’s opinions can be reconsidered or challenged. The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether the Law Department will stand by the 1987 opinion.

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed reporting.