Wait, Were Officials Trying to Limit Public Access to Kenney’s Budget Address?

A Council email said you had to be on the "official list" to attend the mayor's speech. Was it a mistake?


Photos by Jeff Fusco

Was there a plan afoot to make Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget address a VIP-only event?

On Tuesday, an aide for City Council President Darrell Clarke sent an email to lawmakers that seemed to suggest that only invited guests would be allowed to attend Kenney’s speech.

When I asked Clarke’s spokeswoman about the message, though, she called it “inaccurate,” and promised that Kenney’s budget address would be open to members of the public. A spokeswoman for Kenney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The email in question instructed Council members to submit the names of guests they planned to invite to the budget address, which is held every year in Council chambers.

“We are finalizing the list for access to the Mayor’s Budget Address taking place Thursday, March 3rd 2016,” wrote William Carter, Clarke’s Chief Operating Officer. “Only persons on the official list will be granted access to Council Chambers during the address. As space is extremely limited, we ask that Council Offices limit requests to 2 outside (non Council staff) guests.”

The email made the rounds Tuesday, and two groups in particular raised their eyebrows when they saw it: the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the disability rights’ group Liberty Resources.

“We are very disappointed that City Council and the mayor are operating in a closed and non-transparent manner,” said Tom Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources, after reading the message yesterday. 

ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper said upon seeing the email that she was “skeptical” that Council could restrict access to the event without violating the state’s Sunshine Act. “If there’s any discussion among Council members, that’s considered deliberation — and that is exactly what the Sunshine Act requires to to be open to the public,” she said.

Contrary to what the email seemingly implies, though, Clarke spokeswoman Jane Roh said that Kenney’s budget address is “definitely open to the public.”

“Will’s phrasing [in the message] is unfortunate and inaccurate,” she said. “Members of the public will be admitted until Chambers reaches full lawful capacity. … Overflow guests will be invited to watch the address via TV monitor in the Caucus Room.”

Plus, Roh said, “The address will air live on the city’s government access channel, which can also be viewed online via livestream … this will be a very public event, as it is every year.”

After I started asking questions, Clarke’s office emailed a “clarification” to lawmakers on Wednesday. It said that “the general public will have access to 4th floor seating” in Council chambers once guests on a “reserved list” are seated. “As always, the 5th floor gallery will be open to the public from the time Chambers opens,” the email adds.

Roper and Earle were both happy to hear that the public will be allowed in.

“We’ll be there,” said Earle.

“That sounds like democracy,” said Roper.

The idea of limiting access to the mayor’s budget address is not as crazy as it sounds: In 2014, NBC10 reported that only ticketed guests would be allowed to attend then-Mayor Michael Nutter‘s speech, after he had been shouted down by union protesters during his budget address a year prior. In the end, at least some union members were let into the 2014 event.

To say that Kenney has a better relationship with the city’s unions than Nutter did is an understatement. That doesn’t mean his budget address will be without controversy, though. Kenney is going to propose a soda tax tomorrow, which Teamsters Local 830 opposes.

Bill Hamilton, an internal vice president of the Teamsters, said the group is not planning to hold a protest Thursday, however.