Who’s Afraid of Darrell Clarke?

Not the mayoral candidates, no sir.

Darrell Clarke

Darrell Clarke

City Council President Darrell Clarke—and by extension City Council as a whole—is showing in both words and deeds that Council intends to play a huge, perhaps dominant, role in city government now and in the future, no matter who is elected mayor.


  • Clarke is pushing for a sweeping reorganization of the city’s development-related departments. It’s the sort of job—management of city government—that has historically been left to mayors, not council.
  • At Clarke’s direction, City Council has hired its own lobbyist to represent its interests in Harrisburg.
  • At-large councilman Ed Neilson has proposed changing the charter to require City Council approval of cabinet-level mayoral appointees, and Clarke has signaled that it’s an idea worth considering.

Theoretically, Philadelphia has a “strong-mayor” form of government, where the elected mayor proposes and administers the budget, appoints senior officials (without council’s consent) and manages city departments. In ways big and small—from rejecting the sale of PGW without so much as a hearing to requiring mayors get council approval before painting many bike lane stripes—Council has chipped away at both the mayor’s formal powers and the overall perception that, in City Hall, the mayor calls the shots.

In an interview, Clarke said the 1951 City Charter—which created Philadelphia’s strong-mayor system—was created “in a time and place that was much different than today.” Back then, Clarke said, Council “had minimal resources at best; but this has increasingly become a different era where the participation of council has changed” as Council has grown more sophisticated, with larger staffs, more research capability and so on.

Citified wondered how the mayoral candidates felt about Council’s flexing, so we asked each of them to answer four questions about the changing balance of power between the mayor’s office and City Council. Their responses are fascinating; shedding light on the candidates’ potential approaches to Council, their individual brands of leadership, and their wariness of Clarke’s power.

Our questions and the candidates full answers are below.

1. City Council is hiring a lobbyist to represent its interests in Harrisburg. As a mayoral candidate, does that trouble you? Why or why not?

Lynne Abraham: (Editor’s note: Abraham’s response came in the form of a full statement. We’ve selected the most relevant paragraphs for each question.) Council’s move towards hiring its own lobbyist sends the wrong message to Harrisburg. It suggests that Philadelphia is divided into two governments. Council is essentially a legislative body under the Charter, not a shadow government. It doesn’t need its own lobbyist, and shouldn’t have one.

Nelson Diaz: Not at all. It won’t impact the Mayor at all, and I intend to work closely with the City Council as Mayor.

Jim Kenney: I understand why the Council President is doing that, but it’s my hope that when I’m mayor our interests will coincide more often than not.

Doug Oliver: (Oliver’s quotes come from a brief phone conversation, not written responses.) Whether it’s reworking planning and development or a lobbyist in Harrisburg, the only thing that would concern me is if those initiatives were not in fact good for the city. I’ve got no reason to believe the Council President will be campaigning for anything different than the mayor would. I haven’t heard anything to suggest he’s foreclosing on an opportunity to have a conversation with whoever the next mayor is. It’s an engaged council and the fact they seem to be moving in lockstep is better than when they’re going in 17 different directions.

Tony Williams: I understand why the City would want to have greater representation in Harrisburg. As is exemplified by the school funding formula, we are not getting our fair share. So, I don’t object to their plans to increase Philadelphia’s presence in the capitol. And I intend to work with Council President Clarke and others to ensure that we are speaking as One Philadelphia in Harrisburg.

2. Council President Darrell Clarke is championing a major reorganization of the city’s planning and development departments that will require charter changes. Should such a reorganization be led and orchestrated by the Council President? Or is that a job for the mayor? Please elaborate on your thinking.

Abraham: The way that the Council President is initiating Charter change to create a division of Planning and Development may not in itself be troubling, but pushing the bill without input from stakeholders is in fact disturbing. There seemed to be little concern with whether this model, used in other cities, was suitable for Philadelphia. The complexity of the proposal argues in favor of taking the time to consider all of the consequences, intended and unintended, before moving forward with Charter change. The timing itself, so close to the election of a new Mayor and on the same ballot, is just wrong. Why the rush? It was never explained. Likely, Clarke intends to tie the hands of the new Mayor.

The process in Council was also troubling. A coalition of community groups and the families of those who died in the Salvation Army disaster urged caution in making such an extreme change in the Charter without deliberation and without dealing with the crisis at Licenses & Inspections. Councilmembers were not briefed on last-minute amendments. Some Councilmembers justified their passivity in the face of Clarke’s bill because the Council President has power over their offices, their staff and even their office supplies. And this abdication of responsibility not long after not even one Councilmember had the courage to put the PGW sale up for a hearing or vote!

Diaz: That’s the wrong question. All changes of this magnitude should be made in consultation with all the relevant stakeholders. It’s not either/or – it’s both.

Kenney: I think it’s something for the Mayor and the Council President to do together. Philadelphia is facing some serious challenges, including L&I, and the only way to fix them is to get everyone around the same table and working together.

Williams: The Council President and I certainly agree on the need for a reorganization of the Department of Licenses and Inspections. In addition to his bill, I am reviewing the recommendations from Mayor Nutter’s commission. As Mayor, I hope to work with the Council President to implement changes that improve public safety, and enhance economic development.

3. Councilman Ed Neilson recently said in a public council hearing that he wants to pursue legislation that would require the mayor to get council’s approval when appointing cabinet-level officials. When I asked Council President Clarke about that notion, he said: “My concern with the way government has been structured is that, by virtue of the executive branch’s ability to ignore the charter and put people in places that give them broad-based power without 1) adhering to the charter requirements and 2) not having any public vetting process for that individual that in some instances has more power and influence than the elected members of the city government. So I think there needs to be a conversation about that.” … How would you feel if council were to enact a charter change requiring that the mayor’s cabinet level appointees be confirmed by City Council?

Abraham: The current situation is unacceptable. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. It doesn’t work for our city. The discussions about Council’s having veto power over cabinet appointments is regrettable and would usurp the power not only of the next mayor, but every mayor that follows. Council members complain that they find it difficult to get the attention of top administration officials, who remain aloof. But there are better ways for Council to connect with the administration. A strong mayor could make that happen in a heartbeat. In any event, the mayor should have the power to appoint her cabinet without the approval of Council. The mayor is accountable for her cabinet and should not have to go through a political process to form her government.

Diaz: Ironically, I myself had to go through confirmation by the US Senate to become General Counsel at HUD. I’m open to a discussion about the proper role of the City Council in major hiring decisions.

Kenney: I will work with City Council with or without a charter change to ensure they feel that they’ve had sufficient input on my cabinet appointees.

Oliver: I have different thoughts on it. It requires a charter change, so the people of Philadelphia will have a chance to voice their opinion about that (charter changes are subject to a ballot referendum). It doesn’t just happen. If they’re concerned you’ll know that. If they aren’t, it’ll pass.

The underlying side is that (council) hasn’t had input on positions that have far reaching authority. If there’s an Oliver administration I’d seek to address that by just giving them input. If there’s a charter change and it now requires Council confirmation then it just moves it to a model like we see at the state level. Most of the time it’s not an issue, not a big deal. I thin the underlying issue is involvement.

Williams: I want a strong and effective partnership with Council. Ultimately the selection of a mayor’s cabinet by the mayor and managing director is consistent with the form of mayoral government created by the Home Rule Charter. The charter sets out a balance of powers including providing the mayor the authority to administer the government and get things done. Based on that, I would oppose altering the charter on this issue.

More broadly, these issues taken together suggest that City Council’s power is growing. As a candidate for mayor, are you troubled by that development. Why or why not?

Abraham: Philadelphia can only become “the Next Great American City” if we elect a strong mayor who can work well with City Council. A good example was the working relationship between Ed Rendell, a strong mayor, and John Street, a strong Council President. This worked well because John Street respected Ed Rendell and vice versa. Each understood their role in government. They had a working partnership and got things done… Clearly, the growth of the power of Council did not arise in a vacuum. The mayor’s reluctance to engage with Council over a period of seven years contributed to the current situation. One of my early goals will be to restore a healthy balance to the Mayor-Council relationship, to engage with each Council member and call upon everyone to rise above personality and do the work of the people. They deserve nothing less.

Diaz: Again, I don’t think this is the right question. A strong mayor still has all the power he needs, especially if he’s willing to work with the Council. I have a lot of respect for Darrell, and you’re not going to see the same kinds of conflicts you’ve seen.

Kenney: Not at all. As mayor, I’ll work side by side with City Council. We’re all on the same team. I always thought it was the mayor’s job to be a point guard for Council.

Oliver: It’s only a challenge if you thought you could get something done without City Council. I personally recognized from experience and just from observation that both bodies, the executive and legislatives branches, are going to have to cooperate.

Williams: The infighting between Council and the mayor is counterproductive and is stopping us from moving forward as One Philadelphia. We need to be focusing our attention on our government’s response to the city’s problems – like education, crime, and poverty instead of focusing our attention on our governmental response to government. People across the city in every neighborhood want the mayor and City Council to be working to create clean, safe neighborhoods where they can find jobs that pay a living wage and send their children to great public schools.  In my career as a legislator, I have learned to get things done working with Governors and majorities of both parties.  As mayor I will engage all of Philadelphia’s elected officials  – whether they are in the city, Harrisburg or Washington DC – in the work of realizing the vision of One Philadelphia so we won’t need to be caught up in questions of who isn’t talking to whom and who isn’t getting credit for what.  When we make our city the world-class destination it should be, we will all – mayor, council and every other Philadelphian — share in the credit for making a better Philadelphia.