Philadelphia City Council Freshmen Flunk First Day on the Job

New Council President Darrell Clarke's off to a good start, but the newly elected officials phone in their beginning.

On the surface, City Council’s first working session of 2012 seemed altogether different. Gone was the wizened frame of the recently retired Anna Verna; in her place at the head of council chambers was Darrell Clarke. Gone too were five other council members, a (mostly) sorry lot that will not be missed by those Philadelphians who expect their legislators to actually, you know, legislate. In their place were six new council members: some nervous, some buoyant, all of them— one would expect, at least—anxious to make a name for themselves.

But no. Not yesterday, at least. The first council session of 2012 was—with the exception of the Clarke for Verna swap—much like any other of the past four years. A handful of council members, Clarke, Bill Green, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Curtis Jones, Blondell Reynolds Brown, Wilson Goode, Jr., kicked off the new term with fistfuls of bills and weighty resolutions, while their fellows—including all six of the freshmen—offered up nothing but empty commendations and small-ball zoning housekeeping within their districts.

This has been the prevailing dynamic in council for a long time now: A minority of members work to actually move the ball, the rest punch the clock or work pretty much exclusively on local district issues. It’s easy to dismiss the whole of council as useless, obstructionist or both, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone else. But in reality, council isn’t a monolith, and there are a number of council members who consistently try to get their colleagues to confront the major issues facing Philadelphia as a whole.

The trouble is, that group has been small relative to the rest of council. And there were no signs yesterday that the huge new class of freshmen would be swelling the ranks of council members who see their jobs as more than just glorified 311 operators. Sure, it was one meeting. Perhaps the new lot didn’t want to ruffle feathers on their first day. But look, if I’d spent years (and that’s what it takes to win a council seat) hustling campaign donors, hitting countless community meetings and kissing ward-leader ass, I’d be pretty keen to actually do something after winning office. Maybe even introduce a bill or two, right?

The last class of council freshmen—Green, Quinones-Sanchez and Jones—introduced only one meaningful bill on their first day in office four years ago, but it was a doozy: Ban elected officials, like their fellow council members, from participating in DROP. What a way to serve notice to their new colleagues that they intended to shake things up a little bit. True, that particular bill went nowhere (though a different version of the same notion was ultimately approved), but it foreshadowed the outsized roles those freshmen played in their first terms, roles they seem ready to play again in their second terms.

Yesterday, for instance Green introduced a spate of bills designed to make Philly companies receiving city assistance hire Philly residents when they have job openings; Sanchez proposed hearings on the effect of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies in schools and Harrisburg’s bizarre anti-Sharia law push; Jones called for a resolution opposing the state’s plan to asset-test for food stamps.

Some other usual suspects—and I mean that in a good way—were active yesterday as well. Clarke, who is one of the most prolific bill authors on council, began rolling out his agenda, which includes stepping up the sale of unused city properties and putting advertisements on other city assets. Blondell Reynolds Brown grabbed headlines with her provocative and (I think smart) proposal to let city bars stay open until 3 a.m., and Wilson Goode Jr. wants to expand a city tax credit to help job creation.

Are all these things good ideas? I don’t know yet. Probably not. But the point is that these council members are pretty consistently the ones suggesting ways to improve the city as a whole, addressing more than just the parochial concerns of influential supporters within their districts (you could add Jim Kenney to that list, though he didn’t have anything to offer yesterday*). Is that so much to ask of an elected representative of Philadelphia? That you actually have a thought in your head about how to improve the city and actually try to make that thought a reality?

The exciting thing about getting six new council members was the possibility that, for the first time in a long time (like maybe ever), the contributors might actually outnumber the clock punchers. So far, not so much.

*UPDATE: Councilman Kenney emailed to highlight a fresh idea from yesterday that I’d overlooked. He wants hearings to look into creating zones within the city that would keep a portion of taxes paid by local residents and businesses for exclusive use on economic development projects within the designated zone. The resolution was co-sponsored by freshman Councilman Bobby Henon, who Kenney said played a key role in the development of the idea. That means Henon, who represents the lower Northeast, brought something to the table after all at his first council meeting.