Philly City Council is about to have an unusual fall session. Here’s what to expect.
An unusually high number of vacancies on Council may make legislation more difficult to pass.
Philadelphia City Council members return Thursday from their annual summer break to what promises to be an unusual fall session, with at least four vacant seats and a transition to in-person meetings for the first time in more than two years.
Four members resigned over the summer to run in the 2023 mayoral race or explore doing so. At least two others are said to be considering joining the race, which would require them to step down as well. And yet another member will face a federal corruption trial later this month, raising the possibility of more turnover.
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The vacancies don’t just mean the loss of certain voices during debates; they will have a material impact on the legislative process, potentially making it more difficult to pass controversial legislation.
Here are the answers to your questions about Council this fall:
Who is resigning from Council?
Council is experiencing remarkable turnover. As many as eight of the 17 members who started off the current four-year term in January 2020 might not make it to the end.
That includes three former members who resigned this month to begin their mayoral campaigns: Cherelle Parker, Derek Green, and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. Allan Domb, who is considering a mayoral run, resigned in August.
More turnover may be afoot. Councilmembers Helen Gym and David Oh are said to be eyeing the mayoral race. And Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson will face his second trial on federal corruption charges on Sept. 28.
Prosecutors have accused Johnson of accepting a bribe in the form of consulting work for his wife, Dawn Chavous, in exchange for taking official action that financially benefited Universal Companies, an affordable-housing nonprofit and charter-school operator. Johnson and Chavous have denied wrongdoing, and jurors in April failed to reach consensus on the charges, resulting in a mistrial.
If he is convicted, Johnson would not have to resign until his sentencing, which could be months later, but there would be precedent to do so sooner. Former Councilmember Bobby Henon, who is awaiting sentencing after being convicted last year on corruption charges, stepped down weeks after his conviction.
How will the vacancies be filled?
Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter rests the power to call for special elections for vacant seats with Council President Darrell L. Clarke.
Clarke has called for Parker’s 9th District seat and Quiñones-Sánchez’s 7th District seat to be filled in special elections coinciding with the Nov. 8 general election for state and federal races. He has not ordered special elections to fill the seats of Domb or Green, who both held at-large seats elected citywide.
Party ward leaders choose the nominees for special elections, and on Wednesday night the Democratic ward leaders in the 7th and 9th Districts chose the preferred candidates of their outgoing Council members: Quiñones-Sánchez’s former chief of staff Quetcy Lozada, and Anthony Phillips, a Democratic committee person in Parker’s district and the executive director of the nonprofit Youth Action.
Thanks to the districts’ overwhelmingly Democratic electorates, Lozada and Phillips are all but guaranteed to join Council after the November election is certified.
How does Council work with fewer members?
Council’s rules for passing legislation will not change despite the depleted number of members. That means that bills will still need nine votes — a majority of the 17 Council seats — to pass, despite there being only 13 lawmakers.
A spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said the administration stands by a 1987 city solicitor’s opinion that found that Council needs nine votes to pass legislation and 12 votes to override mayoral vetoes, regardless of the number of vacancies.
With more resignations likely on the horizon, that raises the possibility of Council not having enough members to overturn vetoes.
Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr. said moving legislation “is going to be challenging” this fall.
With just 10 remaining Democrats and one member of the progressive Working Families Party, “those votes will be tighter than ever before, and we’ll have to whip up the votes issue by issue,” he said.
What happens to committees?
The mayoral hopefuls who stepped down were not just any lawmakers. Parker served as majority leader, Quiñones-Sánchez chaired the Appropriations and Education Committees, and Green led the Finance Committee.
The resignations will lead to a reorganization of Council’s committees, where much of the most important decision-making in the legislative process takes place.
Jones appears poised to replace Parker as majority leader. But beyond that, Clarke has not yet announced how he will reassign committee roles, and the vacancies have already led to the cancellations or postponements of several planned hearings.
The Finance Committee, for instance, had been scheduled to consider Councilmember Kendra Brooks’ proposed “wealth tax” in a Sept. 21 hearing, but the hearing has been taken off the calendar.
Brooks’ office had already lined up experts to testify and rallied supporters to come, so she’s instead hosting a “People’s Hearing” to take place the same day outside City Hall.
Will Council meet in person?
When lawmakers went on summer breaks in June, Philadelphia’s City Council was the last municipal legislature among the 10 largest U.S. cities that was still holding all of its meetings remotely.
That will change this fall — but not right away. Thursday’s meeting, which starts at 10 a.m., will be held remotely and can be viewed on Channel 64 or streamed on Council’s website.
Clarke has announced plans for lawmakers to return to Council chambers on Sept. 22. Committee hearings, however, will still be held remotely.
What is on Council’s agenda?
Council’s trio of progressive members — Gym, Brooks, and Jamie Gauthier — are introducing a package of legislation this week that they say would improve privacy protections for patients seeking abortion care in Philadelphia and doctors who provide them.
One bill would restrict providers or employers from volunteering information to other states about people who seek abortion care. Another would bar employers from discriminating against workers because they sought or obtained an abortion. The bills are cosponsored by all five women on City Council.
Lawmakers on Thursday will also vote on legislation that would end the city’s practice of collecting millions of dollars in Social Security benefits intended for foster children. The bill would require the city to set aside the money in savings accounts that the children would have access to when they turn 18.
And Gym will introduce legislation Thursday to once again extend Philadelphia’s eviction diversion program, which is set to expire at the end of the calendar year. The program, which launched during the pandemic and became a national model, requires landlords to seek mediation and rental assistance before taking tenants to court for not paying.