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Philly mail ballots will be further delayed because of a zoning dispute between the mayor and City Council

Council President Darrell L. Clarke issued writs of elections for the two at-large seats hours after Mayor Jim Kenney vetoed a bill aimed at preventing “smoke shops” in the 9th District.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke has issued writs of elections for two at-large Council seats.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke has issued writs of elections for two at-large Council seats.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

It all started with a zoning bill.

In a bizarre chain of events Thursday, a veto of a zoning bill by Mayor Jim Kenney factored into a decision by Council President Darrell L. Clarke to order special elections to fill two vacancies on City Council, which will further delay the distribution of mail ballots to Philadelphia voters for Pennsylvania’s nationally watched Senate and gubernatorial elections.

The saga began when Kenney on Thursday morning issued a rare veto to kill a bill by former Councilmember Cherelle Parker that was aimed at stemming the growth of nuisance businesses that sell drug paraphernalia in her district.

Parker and three other Council members recently resigned to run or explore running in next year’s mayoral race. That leaves Council with only 13 members — just one more than the 12 required to override vetoes, with more resignations likely on the horizon.

Clarke last week ordered special elections to fill the seats vacated by Parker and former Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represented geographic districts. Clarke issued the writs for those special elections on the first day he could under state law, limiting the delays in the distribution of ballots for the midterm election cycle. He notably did not order special elections to fill vacancies for two at-large seats, which are elected citywide.

That changed after Kenney’s veto. Clarke issued writs of elections for the two at-large seats hours later. A statement from his office announcing the decision noted Council’s thin margins for veto override votes and Home Rule Charter amendments, which also require 12 votes.

“The Council President’s action in issuing writs for special elections for At Large seats followed a Meeting in City Council at which Mayor Kenney vetoed a bill concerning a neighborhood overlay for the 9th District – legislation originally sponsored by now-former Councilmember Parker,” the statement said.

Clarke added: “It is vitally important that City Council be able to conduct its business, whether that is passing legislation, considering an override of a mayor’s veto, or even legislation to change the Home Rule Charter.”

How candidates are nominated for special elections

The nomination process for special elections takes at least 18 days, preventing the City Commissioners, who run Philadelphia elections, from printing and sending out mail ballots for the election until the candidates are confirmed. The commissioners were already delayed in sending out the Nov. 8 ballots because of the special elections for the two district seats.

Thursday’s news means the window for Philly voters to cast mail ballots in Pennsylvania’s two high-profile statewide races — the U.S. Senate election between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman, and the gubernatorial contest between Josh Shapiro and Doug Mastriano — will be even smaller, complicating get-out-the-vote efforts in the state’s largest Democratic stronghold.

Philadelphia’s mail ballots could have begun going out as early as Sept. 19. Clarke’s initial move to add the district races to the ballot pushed that to the first week of October. Now, adding the at-large races will delay the mail ballots until the second week of October. That reduces the mail voting period in the city to less than a month.

“Our department is charged with administrating these Special Elections and that is what we will do,” said Nick Custodio, deputy to city elections chief Lisa Deeley.

In special elections in Philadelphia, party leaders choose their nominees rather than primary voters, opening the door to behind-the-scenes deal-making and disputes among insiders. Given Philadelphia’s heavily Democratic electorate, the party’s nominee is virtually guaranteed to win the seat.

Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady said the party has not yet set a time to convene its policy committee and have its ward leaders vote on nominees.

“The mail ballots don’t have to be early,” Brady said. “All that does is make it convenient. As long as they get there in time to be mailed back in.”

A handful of Democrats have already said they are seeking one of the two nominations, including Eryn Santamoor, ex-Councilmember Allan Domb’s former chief of staff, who unsuccessfully ran for an at-large seat in 2019; Sharon Vaughn, a ward leader and Green’s ex-chief of staff who has worked in City Hall for more than three decades; and South Philly community activist Anton Moore.

Several others are rumored to be interested, including James Harrity, the executive director of the Philadelphia Democratic party; and Gary Masino, head of the Sheet Metal Workers union.

An unexpected veto

Kenney’s veto that started Thursday’s chain of events came as a surprise because he rarely kills bills and has supported efforts to crack down on “smoke shops” before.

Council approved the bill in June before going on summer break, and Parker resigned from Council earlier this month.

The bill would require business owners to obtain special exemptions from the Zoning Board of Adjustment to open convenience stores on commercial corridors in the 9th District, which includes parts of North and Northwest Philadelphia.

In a letter explaining his veto, Kenney wrote that the language of Parker’s bill was too broad and would affect legitimate businesses.

“While my Administration is supportive of the bill’s intent to reduce nuisance business activity, this legislation is not the appropriate tool to combat the genuine concerns sought to be addressed,” Kenney wrote. “Requiring prospective business owners to retain the costly services of an attorney and face the delay and uncertainty associated with a special exception hearing will discourage the establishment of new businesses and the expansion of those already in existence.”

Parker did not respond to a request for comment.

Her likely successor, however, said he doesn’t plan to let the matter go.

Democratic ward leaders on Wednesday night nominated Anthony Phillips, the executive director of the nonprofit Youth Action, to be the party’s candidate in the Nov. 8 special election to fill Parker’s seat, all but guaranteeing he will complete her term.

Phillips said Thursday that he would pursue similar legislation if he wins the seat.

“As a longtime member of this community I can tell you firsthand that this legislation is important and paramount to our neighbors,” Phillips said. “I’m willing to have a conversation with the mayor to learn what we have to do to ensure a bill of this sort gets through.”

It’s Kenney’s eighth veto as mayor, and only his second direct veto. He killed six bills at the end of the previous Council term in 2019 with a “pocket veto,” in which the mayor declines to sign legislation until it expires when a new Council takes office.

His only other direct veto was aimed at defeating legislation by Councilmember Mark Squilla that set more restrictive zoning rules in Society Hill. Council, however, voted to override the veto.