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If you want city government to work better for you, get involved. The first step is staying informed—things can change when our elected leaders know we’re paying attention. Here are a few ways to do that:
Tune into WURD’s live coverage of Council meetings (plus interviews with key members and spotlights of current issues) Thursday’s from 10am-1pm
Watch stated meetings, committee meetings, budget hearings, and Councilmember spotlights on City Council’s YouTube channel
Follow Mayor Kenney on Twitter.
Use our guide to contact your electeds or go to a meeting in person.
Check out Council’s calendar and meeting agendas to find out when they’ll be voting on legislation you care about. There’s a public comment period at every meeting, right before Council votes on resolutions and bills.
Call the Chief Clerk’s office (215-686-3410 or 215-686-3411) to sign up to speak; if you haven’t signed up by 5pm on Wednesday before the meeting, go to Room 400 City Hall before the Council session starts to add your name to the list. You can also show up day-of and you’ll have the opportunity to speak after all citizens who signed up. You get three minutes, so make them count.
“Everybody’s angry, everybody’s got a negative opinion about everything…Sometimes people think you’re aloof but sometimes you don’t want to encounter people because you don’t know what their reaction will be. I’ve had people give me a hard time in restaurants. I’ve had people picket my home, my fiancee’s home, with guns. It’s not been normal…I judge myself by the way African-American women treat me when I’m out. It’s a lot of love, a lot of encouragement. Some White men aren’t as encouraging, but that’s what White men are these days.” — Our Mayor
Listen to the full, year-end interview here.
The state of our city politics makes it easy to feel disheartened… really disheartened. But our city is more than that. It’s also made up of incredible changemakers doing important work—like the ones on our 2021 Citizens of the Year list. And here, a few more reasons to be hopeful.
Welcome to the enhanced audio edition of Larry’s story

And go here for more audio articles from CitizenCast
6 ways to play watchdog
Grade his own performance
Reasons to be hopeful
To this story in CitizenCast
BY Larry Platt
Jan. 07, 2022
During the first of the 2004 presidential election debates, incumbent George W. Bush complained that his job was “really hard” roughly 15 times. His opponent, John Kerry, was a Democrat, which meant he was more focused on presenting his well thought-out policy plans in as boring a monotone as possible than in delivering a rhetorical knockout blow the president had unintentionally invited: “Mr. President,” Kerry could have said, “this isn’t about you. The American people know you have a hard job. They’re interested in you using it to make their jobs a little easier.”
Game, set, match, right? Instead, Kerry droned on and on, and folksy Bush skated to reelection.
I was reminded of Bush’s whining at that debate last week, when Mayor Kenney granted a year-end podcast interview to Pat Loeb of KYW NewsRadio. Loeb is a longtime pro, which made the apologetic tone of her questioning quite puzzling. (You get 15 minutes with the mayor and don’t even mention the city’s 562 murders or the 101 percent six-year homicide increase on his watch?) Despite the softballs, Kenney couldn’t help focusing on himself, on how hard his job is, and on how he’s not really responsible for all the bad stuff occurring on his watch. Somehow, the buck always stops somewhere else.
“Especially in Philadelphia, you can find people that want to complain about everything, and there’s nothing that’s ever right for them,” he said. “Everybody’s angry, everybody’s got a negative opinion about everything…Sometimes people think you’re aloof but sometimes you don’t want to encounter people because you don’t know what their reaction will be. I’ve had people give me a hard time in restaurants. I’ve had people picket my home, my fiancee’s home, with guns. It’s not been normal…I judge myself by the way African-American women treat me when I’m out. It’s a lot of love, a lot of encouragement. Some White men aren’t as encouraging, but that’s what White men are these days.”
The mayor doesn’t show up in public because people might be mean to him? Poor Jimmy.
Okay. Breathe. The mayor doesn’t show up in public because people might be mean to him? Poor Jimmy. And we’ve gotta pause here to comment on just how downright weird his African-American woman comment is—pandering and patronizing at the exact same time. And the chutzpah! At a time when some 85 percent of those murdered are Black and Brown, a White mayor hiding behind Black women takes a pair, no? Moreover, for a guy who is wringing his hands about White guys, he sure has tended to surround himself with them. I’ve written before about how, for much of his mayoralty, his most intimate brain trust has consisted of White dudes who all grew up within blocks of one another in South Philly.
Kenney went on in the interview to talk about how hard it is for him to sleep at night, and I have no doubt that’s true. As he exhibited at the scene of the tragic Fairmount fire this week, his heart is often in the right place.
To be fair, let’s give him this: Few mayors in our history have had to contend with the confluence of crises Kenney has had to grapple with. There’s been Covid, rampant murder, racial conflagrations, and an ever-worsening climate crisis. But we don’t look to mayors to tell us how hard their jobs are. We look to mayors to lay out a vision and problem-solve for us. To hear Kenney tell it, our problems are beyond his reach.
“One of the most frustrating things I see driving on I-95 are two big billboards that say ‘Gun show, come buy more guns,’” he said when Loeb, in a roundabout way, raised the issue of crime. “And I can’t stop the billboard and I can’t stop the gun show from happening and I can’t stop people from acquiring military-style weapons, and that’s my frustration. I’m responsible—the government is responsible—for things I can’t control.”
Yeah, but gun-buying was legal when, under your predecessor, the city had 246 murders, a 60 year low. Like our District Attorney, Kenney’s instinct is to make excuses—and not to fight like hell to make things better. Telling, isn’t it, that in his KYW interview, there’s a lot of scapegoating but no mentions of strategies that have worked elsewhere. There’s no mention of policies like focused deterrence or broken windows policing, for example, or the type of comprehensive, $250 million racial equity investment plan being spearheaded by Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Vi Lyles. You don’t hear her talking about what she doesn’t have the power to do.
Yet, time and again in his interview with Loeb, Kenney—who graded himself with an A+ on pre-K and C on crime-fighting—underscored what he can’t do. It was enough to conjure memories of Abraham Lincoln’s famous remark before jettisoning his timid wartime leader: “If General McClellan does not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a time.” The Home Rule Charter provides for a strong mayor form of government in Philadelphia. If Mayor Kenney won’t use the power of his office, perhaps he could lend it to someone who might?
I’ve written it before: Jim Kenney is not a bad guy, he’s just the wrong guy for this moment. Philadelphia has had ineffectual mayors before, but the times now call for more than a caretaker. We need a sense that someone is in charge and thinking deeply about new solutions for seemingly-intractable problems. Unfortunately for us, that somebody might end up being City Council itself, which doesn’t offer much comfort.
Politicians—especially Philly pols—tend to swarm when there’s blood in the water. Only a year into his second term, Kenney is already a lame duck and has been weakened even further now that his political benefactor and childhood buddy John Dougherty has been convicted of public corruption. The more Kenney publicly laments his inability to get things done, the more ferocious will become the jockeying to fill the vacuum he’s created.
In the end, we can’t instill a holistic, good government ethos in those who have long doubled down on a cynical, transactional political culture. The bottom line is that we may just need people of better, more highly elevated character in our elected offices.
And therein lies the danger. Because, far more ominous than a weak, depressed, ineffectual mayor is the prospect of a de facto mayor—one not elected by the city as a whole who has no core principles other than self-interest and the acquisition and disbursement of power. And playing the role of de facto mayor has long seemed to be Council President Darrell Clarke’s fantasy.
Here’s why that’s even more dangerous than Kenney’s fumbling and blame-shifting. The authors of Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter—at the time, a national model for good governance—devised a strong mayor system for what had been a corrupt, transactional town. The elected mayor was charged with proposing and administering a budget, managing city departments, and appointing city officials—without council’s advice or consent.
RELATED: City Council is entertaining amending the Home Rule Charter … again. Why does this matter?
Philly’s disease back then was rampant insiderism. You had to know someone and grease the palms of an elected leader to see a doctor in a hospital or to get cops to do their job. Transparent, accountable mayoral leadership was seen as one way to take all of the city’s shadowy, competing interests with claims on public resources and shape them into a common story. That was the theory, at least, and there have been times when it’s worked precisely as devised: The turnaround from ghost town to vibrancy under Ed Rendell in the ‘90s, the cleaning up of City Hall pay-to-play culture under Michael Nutter in the 2000s.
But Clarke has long been on a mission to lessen the power of the mayor. There was his petty and shameful torpedoing of a $500 million net windfall the city would have seen from the selling of PGW in 2015, denying then-Mayor Nutter even a hearing on a widely-praised deal. He’s passed regulations requiring mayors to get council approval for painting bike lines and even went so far as to hire his own lobbyist in Harrisburg when the mayoral administration already had one on the payroll.
It’s as if Clarke, who never had the guts to run for mayor himself, has decided to serve in the role anyway. Anyone see a problem with that? The dude doesn’t even answer to all of the city. He’s a district councilman. He wants the power to lead the city without being held accountable by all its citizens.
So what’s wrong with a more muscular Council? Well, by its very nature, especially under Clarke, it encourages balkanization. The power that district council members wield—by virtue of councilmanic prerogative, which gives them unfettered control over who builds what in their fiefdoms—makes it that much harder to be one city.
To be clear: We have some promising members on Council, as we’ve chronicled, but they virtually all cower when Clarke flexes his muscles. Oftentimes, internally, his power emanates from comparatively pedestrian perks, like the assignment of offices or committee spots.
Sometimes they manifest in tone: Remember when Clarke led a delegation to Chester, to find out how that city had cut its murder rate by 63 percent? Not only did he not invite the mayor, police commissioner, or District Attorney, he doubled-down on explicitly painting himself as a chief executive, saying that Council is an independent body and “doesn’t wait around for other people to act.” Strangely, an Inquirer op-ed seemed to praise Clarke for this anti-collaborative streak, leading one to wonder if we’re so desperate for leadership, even foolhardy photo ops will do in its place.
But Clarke has done more than publicly usurp our ever-shrinking mayor. In countless ways, and with little fanfare, he’s shifted the balance of power in the city to a degree that will leave Kenney’s successor with considerably less maneuverability to get things done for the citizens of Philadelphia than Kenney had upon first taking office.
That has mostly been done through councilmanic prerogative, which has been ascendant under Clarke, despite the fact that, thanks to the practice, three former councilmembers have gone on vacation courtesy of the judgment of their peers.
RELATED: City Council’s housing policy power grab is crippling Philly’s big-picture goals on affordability and climate. Where is Mayor Kenney in all this?
Jon Geeting has done a great job chronicling how Clarke’s “war on housing” actually thwarts truly progressive and good government values. Geeting cites chapter and verse on how power over land use and development has shifted to Clarke’s system of mutual backscratching:
The upshot of all this is that taking more kinds of decisions away from the mayoral administration, and putting them into the prerogative basket, could be expected to increase the scope for corruption and ensure that citywide goals for affordability, housing and jobs access, and climate change will continue to lose out in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts from a million more localized concerns. That’s the wrong direction for the city to go in at this moment when we need strong citywide leadership on so many different fronts when it comes to housing our growing population. But that is the direction a majority of City Council continues to push in, with almost no pushback from the Kenney administration.”
There are countless examples of this shift. Why in the world, for example, is councilmanic prerogative necessary to allow or disallow a restaurant from erecting an outdoor dining structure, or streatery, as unanimously approved by Council? Council had originally sought to extend the pro-consumer, pro-economic growth pivot so many restaurants embraced during the pandemic, but then Clarke jumped in to make sure district members could control the process.
RELATED: The City is making restaurants in Midtown Village dismantle their streateries for non-emergency utility work set to start January 20. Is this really how to keep the city thriving?
It’s as if the city has 10 different mayors—who all march to the beat of Clarke’s orchestration. Lo and behold, now we’re seeing stories about restaurants that find themselves 500 feet from streatery approval. By definition, prerogative arbitrates between competing interests, thereby creating winners and losers. Do our progressives who talk so passionately about equity only abstractly see its importance and discard it once it conflicts with their own inequitable, backscratching relationships?
How about this one: Geeting and others have chronicled how Clarke held up a resolution that would have authorized the Redevelopment Authority to enter into a contract with Habitat for Humanity to redevelop a row of properties into affordable homes. Why? To preserve a small parking lot in an area with plenty of parking. Again, in a city dominated by progressives, the public good took a back seat to private interests.
To be clear: We have some promising members on Council, as we’ve chronicled, but they virtually all cower when Clarke flexes his muscles. Oftentimes, internally, his power emanates from comparatively pedestrian perks, like the assignment of offices or committee spots.
I’ve asked numerous insiders, including Council members themselves, a simple question over the years: Does the Council President have a core political principle? The question is usually met with knowing smiles and sotto voce colloquies on the nature of capturing and exercising power. That’s the suspected rationale behind Clarke’s recent Charter change proposal that, at first blush, would (diabolically?) seem to reform zoning: Clarke would expand the number of seats on the Zoning Board of Adjustment from five to seven, establish defined roles and professions represented on the board, and also introduce a requirement that City Council vote to approve the mayor’s Zoning Board of Adjustment appointees.
RELATED: The opposite of councilmanic prerogative? It’s not rocket science: It’s planning
Aha, there it is, that last one: Another encroachment on mayoral power. It’s become a familiar trend. Why, as we learned during the Dougherty/Henon trial, was Henon negotiating with Comcast on the city’s cable franchise contract? Why was federally indicted Councilman Kenyatta Johnson seeming to do the bidding of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and passing a “Prevailing Wage” law that provided frontline airport workers with a $15 minimum wage and health and sick pay benefits? Whether you agree with the goals of that bill or not—I do—there’s nothing inherently legislative about lawmakers inserting themselves into collective bargaining negotiations. But Kenney’s administration has ceded power so much that Council often seems like a bunch of de facto chief executives…or, perhaps more accurately, war lords.
So what can be done? For one, we should be affording the Council President the same scrutiny we apply to the mayor. What, after all, is in that “purchase of services” category in Council’s budget that is not itemized? I’m not suggesting there’s anything nefarious about where those few million dollars have gone. Just that we should all agree that the days of Clarke and his district members running their fiefdoms with little or no public oversight ought to be over.
The one reform that comes to mind stems from former Mayor John Street, Clarke’s one-time mentor. Street—perhaps the greatest Council president in Philly history—has long argued that the Council president should not be a district councilmember. If the council president and the mayor are both elected citywide, their interests just might more naturally align.
RELATED: In Arlington, Texas and across the nation, term limits for City Councilmembers are gaining steam. Would they make our representatives more responsive… to us?
It’s a good idea, but, for some things, maybe reform isn’t the answer. In the end, we can’t instill a holistic, good government ethos in those who have long doubled down on a cynical, transactional political culture. The bottom line is that we may just need people of better, more highly elevated character in our elected offices.
That’s a long term project. Meantime, as we ride out the Kenney era these next two years, we run the risk of taking our eyes off the ball by focusing just on Kenney’s dithering. We also need to be cognizant of efforts to erode mayoral power even while we’re repelled by Jim Kenney’s inability or unwillingness to utilize it.

MORE RECENT COMMENTARY BY LARRY PLATT
Krasner, Revealed

Reasons To Be Hopeful

Turning the Tide on Gun Violence… Everywhere But Philly

Why Democrats Lose

 
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