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Councilmember Helen Gym proposed a city hiring rule change in what may have been her last meeting before a mayoral run

Council President Clarke championed a policy that requires new city workers to have lived in Philly before being hired. Councilmember Gym wants to allow the city to hire workers from outside the city.

City Councilmember Helen Gym is expected to resign in the near future to run in next year's mayoral election.
City Councilmember Helen Gym is expected to resign in the near future to run in next year's mayoral election.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

Thursday’s City Council meeting was a busy one for second-term Democrat Helen Gym — and it may have been her last.

Gym began the meeting by introducing a proposal to change the residency requirement for newly hired city workers that could undo a significant policy achievement of Council President Darrell L. Clarke’s. And she ended it by giving a lengthy speech that left many with the impression that she would likely resign from Council to run in next year’s mayoral election before lawmakers hold their next meeting in two weeks.

“I mean, everybody knows it — there’s a likelihood that the Councilwoman is going to resign and run for mayor,” Clarke told reporters after the meeting. “If that wasn’t an announcement, I don’t know what else is.”

» READ MORE: Who is running for Philadelphia mayor in 2023?

Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter requires city officials to resign from their current posts before beginning to campaign for new elected offices. Four Council members and City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart have already stepped down to run in the May 2023 Democratic primary for mayor, and Philadelphia grocer Jeff Brown joined the race on Wednesday.

Gym, a leader of the city’s progressive movement, appears to be the next to throw her hat in the ring following her speech, in which she thanked her fellow lawmakers and listed the highlights of the city during her tenure on Council “from the dark years of a former president to becoming Super Bowl champions to a state takeover of our public schools to finally winning local control of them.”

After the meeting, Gym said that her address was merely “a Thanksgiving speech” and that she is still “exploring” running for mayor. But she also indicated she may not be around to shepherd her own proposals through the legislative process, saying an abortion rights bill that she introduced “will get over the line” but avoiding saying whether she’ll be in Council when it does.

That could spell trouble for the residency bill, which would undo a 2020 law Clarke authored that requires new employees in civil service positions to have lived in Philadelphia for a year prior to being hired. Gym’s proposal would go back to the way things were before 2020: New municipal workers can come from anywhere, but they have to move into the city six months after being hired.

Clarke has the power to kill bills by refusing to refer them to committee, and he indicated that’s on the table.

Referring bills is usually a perfunctory step, but for the residency proposal, Clarke said, “I don’t know. I haven’t even seen the bill yet.” Asked how the likelihood of Gym resigning would impact the legislation, Clarke said, “That emboldens my statement just now,” and declined to elaborate.

Clarke pitched the 2020 law as a way to diversify the city workforce, especially the Police Department. On Thursday, he shared with reporters a Police Department memo from earlier this year showing that 2,500 city residents had recently applied to become police officers. That, Clarke said, indicates that recent hiring problems are due to factors beyond the requirement that new city workers must already be Philadelphians.

“I’m not sure if [Gym’s] bill was based on the reality as it relates to being able to hire individuals in the city of Philadelphia, particularly residents; or if it was based on civil service requirements; or if it was based on politics,” Clarke said. “I got elected to represent city of Philadelphia residents. I didn’t get elected to represent speculative residents of the city of Philadelphia.”

Critics say the law has tied the city’s hands amid a staffing crisis that has left many city departments depleted due to a historically tight labor market for local governments across the country.

» READ MORE: How short staffing across Philadelphia city government affects you

“We aren’t delivering on our basic city services and public safety,” Gym said in Council. “We can’t open our libraries. We can’t pick up our trash. We struggle to provide emergency response.”

Her bill already has six cosponsors, meaning she only needs to win over two more colleagues to have enough support to pass the bill — if it moves forward. Councilmember David Oh, who was not a cosponsor, said Thursday he would likely support the bill.

Council approved the prehiring residency requirement as part of a package of bills promoted by Council as police reform measures in the wake of the protests following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

The requirement took effect in 2020 and applied to all civil service positions, or about 80% of the city workforce. It is the most stringent residency requirement of any big city in the country.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration opposed Clarke’s plan, saying it would complicate hiring, but Council approved it in a 16-1 vote, with Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill, a Republican, voting against it. Kenney let the legislation become law without his signature after it was approved with a veto-proof majority.

Since then, the city has experienced a mass exodus of municipal workers who left amid broader shifts in the national labor market. But unlike the private sector, the city has not been able to hire quickly enough to replace the workers.

It’s left the city down about 4,000 workers across the municipal government from the libraries to Licenses and Inspections, complicating the delivery of basic services.

Police brass said applications dropped by 30% after the rule took effect in 2021. The department currently has about 500 vacancies and is staring down an impending wave of retirements. To keep pace with attrition, the department would need to more than triple its current rate of recruitment.

Earlier this year, the city waived the residency requirement for police officers and correctional officers, but administration officials said the rule still had a chilling effect on recruiting.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia lifts residency requirement for police and correctional officers amid staffing shortages

The true impact of the requirement on police hiring isn’t clear. Police departments across the country have reported staffing shortages over the past two years after record numbers of resignations and retirements, and experts say a confluence of factors contributed, including rising rates of gun violence and poor morale.

Kenney and Clarke have been on opposite sides of the residency requirement debate for more than a decade. For 50 years until 2008, most city workers were required to live in the city for a year before being hired.

As a Council member, Kenney had long argued it kept the city from attracting qualified candidates, and in 2008, he championed the legislation that eliminated it.