Why Philadelphia City Council can’t start its sessions on time

“In business, you’re on time… If you’re 15 minutes late, it’s a problem.”

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

Wikimedia Commons

It’s time to batten down and get ready for the weekly 10 a.m. City Council session when an email arrives from an assistant of Council President Darrell Clarke gently telling Council members and their staffers they need to get to the Caucus room immediately. Well, sort of time to batten down. The prevailing sentiment around City Hall is the email’s arrival means there’s still another 20 minutes before you really need to be in the Caucus room.

On Thursday Sept. 15, that email arrived at about 9:55 a.m. You can do the math to estimate when the meeting began. But then add another 10 minutes because apparently Council members decided they’d wait 30 minutes instead of 20 on this day. And then remember the start of Caucus isn’t technically the start of the regular session. The actual session didn’t start until closer to 10:45 a.m.   

In other words, it was a pretty average Thursday. City Council meetings can be a lot of things — contentious, entertaining, boring, unruly, pedantic. One thing they usually are not is on time.  

“It just happens,” says Councilman Bill Greenlee. “Sometimes it’s like people see it’s not starting on time, so they get here a little later each time.”

According to rules of City Council, the weekly meeting is supposed to start on Thursdays at 10 a.m. unless otherwise noted, and the listing for the meeting, the one members of the public can view online, shows the starting time as 10. At least nine of 17 of Council members must be present for the meeting to start.  

And for the last few years Council has rarely made its scheduled time. The only two Council members to show up by 10 on that recent Thursday were veteran Councilman Bill Greenlee and newcomer Derek Green. Everybody else was late.     

“Bill Greenlee,” says Councilman Allan Domb, ‘is always on time.”

Greenlee says under the leadership of former Council President Anna Verna the meetings were more likely to start promptly (Verna declined to run for re-election in 2011 after becoming embroiled in the DROP scandal). Her predecessors as Council President in the ’80s and ’90s were  Joseph Coleman and John Street. Jay McCalla, who worked as a staffer for Councilman Rick Mariano during the tenure of Street, says the meetings generally started a little late but not as late as he has seen under Clarke.

“I was astonished at how late they started,” McCalla says of a recent session he attended. “And particularly because I was under the impression that Darrell was a stickler for time.”

Clarke’s office declined to comment. 

Regardless of who bears responsibility for the routine delays, experts contend it’s an issue, particularly for members of the public who come to watch or testify at Council sessions.

“People who are showing up to testify aren’t on the clock,” says David Thornburgh, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy. “They’re carving time out of their day, their business, their family, whatever. I think City Council owes it out of respect.”

He adds, “The way people manage their time and their calendars, it’s an expression of their power. And making people wait sends a message to them, essentially, ‘my time is more important than yours.’”  

Among the people waiting on Sept. 22: College students. They were visiting Council on some type of field trip. They arrived in the Caucus room a few minutes after 9:30. They were able to talk to Green and Greenlee and that was about it.

If anyone had an excuse to be late, it would’ve been Green. That morning before the City Council session he appeared on television for a special segment about autism, and visited Independence Blue Cross. But he’s used to waking up at 4:45 most mornings to work out and take his son to school, so 10 was no challenge for him.    

So, what are people’s reasons for being late? Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who arrived shortly after 10, says in the hours before the meeting council members resolve problems amongst themselves and other entities related to bills they consider introducing. He says doing so has cut back on arguments and fights on the floor of the actual meeting.    

A staffer for Domb says she and others had to explain to the new Councilman not to show up for his first City Council session this year at 10. He had no previous experience on Council and figured 10 meant 10.

“In business, you’re on time,” Domb says. “If you’re 15 minutes late, it’s a problem.”

He’d like to see the meetings begin on time. Greenlee, too. So would many others who don’t understand why it’s always been tradition to start late.

“There’s no business reason it should have been pushed back,” McCalla says. “If they loop time back it is to convenience the schedule of those who have to convene. It’s a terrible thing to realize that for many of them on a practical human basis it boils down to it’s too early in the day.”

But at least Domb and Jones arrived at Caucus. Late is better than never, and seven of 17 Council members didn’t show up to the Caucus on Sept. 22, period. Ten Council members and a few staffers gathered around the table, with lobbyists and other spectators looking on, as Clarke spoke over the din.

“We need to get started,” he announced. “It’s a little late.”

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