Philadelphia is the only top-10 U.S. city where lawmakers are still meeting virtually
Philadelphia City Council is increasingly isolated in its choice to continue meeting virtually, with lawmakers in many Pennsylvania towns and other large U.S. cities having resumed in-person meeting.
Every Thursday, most Philadelphia City Council members go to City Hall for their weekly public meeting — but they don’t gather in Council’s ornate chambers on the fourth floor.
Instead, many lawmakers log on to Microsoft Teams, and debate and vote on legislation from their separate offices in the landmark building.
After two years of navigating the coronavirus pandemic — and in the wake of the city becoming a national punchline this week for adopting and quickly dropping an indoor mask mandate for businesses — some members believe it’s past time for Council to resume meeting in person.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s insistence on continuing to meet virtually has increasingly made Philadelphia an outlier. Of the 10 largest U.S. cities, all but Philadelphia have returned to in-person or hybrid formats. The commissioners of all four of Philadelphia’s suburban counties meet in person, as do the city councils of Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Allentown.
Councilmember Mark Squilla said he hopes to return to in-person meetings both to better facilitate Council’s work and to send a message that Philadelphia is again open for business.
“If we’re asking the city to open up, if you want people to go back to work, you’ve got to lead by example,” he said.
But the decision rests with Clarke, who is one of the lawmakers who usually logs in to Council’s virtual meetings from within City Hall. Clarke spokesperson Joe Grace said that — out of “an abundance of caution for the public’s health, as well as the health of Council members and staff” — there are no immediate plans to end virtual meetings.
“Given the significant impact in terms of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Philadelphia, we will proceed with caution,” Grace said in a statement. “The public participates regularly in public comment on bills and hearings, via Microsoft Teams. COVID-19 has presented unprecedented public health challenges to everyone, and holding Council sessions is no exception.”
Grace said that Council is working to “install wireless technology, to allow Councilmembers and the public to be better spaced apart for social distancing.”
It’s unclear whether the wireless system will be used anytime soon. Council takes its annual summer break once it wraps up budget negotiations at the end of June, and lawmakers don’t resume regular meetings until Sept. 15.
In the meantime, Grace said the public can view all Council meetings on Xfinity Channel 64, Fios Channel 40, or online at www.PHLCouncil.com/watch.
What councilmembers say
During last year’s budget negotiations, many lawmakers, including Clarke, said meeting virtually made it more difficult to reach a final compromise on the budget. To break the gridlock, a group of members met informally at City Hall, where they hashed out a deal on the level of spending for nonpolice antiviolence programs that had become central to the debate.
Councilmember David Oh, one of two Republican members, said he began to look into the feasibility of holding committee meetings in other venues because constituents wanted to gather. He said especially now that the mask mandate has ended, Council should reconvene in person.
”It’s not good to be isolated from people while we’re dealing with gun violence, crime, drugs, inflation,” he said. “It’s good to hear from people and have contact with people; otherwise, you’re in an elected person’s bubble where you really only hear from people who, for the most part, say you’re doing a good job.”
Councilmember Derek Green said he supports holding in-person sessions, saying he and most of his staff have been working from his City Hall office since last fall.
Not everyone is itching for Council to return to City Hall. Councilmember Allan Domb said he is neutral on the question of whether lawmakers should resume in-person meetings, and he noted that Council’s virtual era has had some unexpected upsides, including punctuality.
Before the pandemic, Council was infamous for its tardiness, sometimes starting meetings an hour or more late and infuriating residents wishing to participate in public comment.
Domb said he hopes Council will retain its timeliness once it resumes meeting in person.
“I would say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, we have all these people sitting in the audience. We’re starting 30 minutes late,’” he said. “There’s a lot of lessons we’ve learned from the pandemic in government, including in City Council, that we can become more efficient and more effective.”
Legislative bodies elsewhere meet in person
Congress has met in person throughout the pandemic, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly holds hybrid meetings in which members can participate live or remotely. Many legislative bodies in other Pennsylvania cities have been meeting in-person for months.
Pittsburgh’s City Council returned in August, and Harrisburg Council members resumed in-person sessions last June. Members of Allentown’s Council have met — masked and socially distanced — in the body’s chambers throughout the pandemic.
The Montgomery County Commissioners — chaired by Valerie Arkoosh, a physician — have met masked and largely in person for nearly a year, and the Bucks County Commissioners have convened in-person since fall 2020. In Delaware County, the county council resumed in-person meetings last spring, and the city of Chester returned last July.
Most of the local governing bodies have restarted in-person meetings with a “hybrid” format, meaning that in addition to being open to the public, the sessions are live-streamed, and constituents may comment virtually. Some also allow members with personal health concerns to participate online.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for the good-government group Committee of 70, said that although Council will have to return in person at some point, a bigger question is what lessons lawmakers learned through holding virtual meetings and how they can use those to increase access to local government.
”Going remote has created opportunities for people to participate in the legislative process who would not normally,” Christmas said, referring to the many residents who can’t attend weekday meetings in Center City but could call in to virtual meetings. “If, at a minimum, there’s a hybrid model going forward — both in-person testifiers and a remote option — that’s a significant step forward.”