The Pennsylvania Senate Local Government Committee was supposed to listen to testimony of anti-soda tax groups at City Council this morning, but pro-tax protesters sporting vuvuzelas got in the way and the committee ditched the meeting after 40 minutes.
Scott Wagner, committee chair, announced to reporters in an adjacent room the meeting was canceled because he couldn’t even be heard in Council chambers.
“We can’t even announce we’re canceling the meeting,” Wagner said.
The meeting was about to start at 11:10 when the blaring horn sounds you usually hear at overseas soccer games flooded the proceedings. A minute or two later, chants of “This is our house, This is our house,” began, and they didn’t stop. Even after the Senate Committee left Council chambers the protesters continued.
Rather than City Hall members sitting at their desks, children took over. They held signs and covered their ears because of the loud vuvuzelas. Councilwoman Helen Gym and Councilman Derek Green were the only members of council present.
The jam-packed gallery in Room 400 of City Hall mostly featured pro-soda tax groups holding signs about education and parks and critics of Wagner. That was evident from a sign that read “Wingnut Wagner is not welcome.”
At one point, Wagner addressed a heckler. Later, while speaking to reporters as the protesting continued, he said he told the heckler what they were doing was unfortunate. He talked about a packed agenda they weren’t getting to.
“This is not accomplishing anything,” Wagner said.
Pa. Sen. Anthony Williams, who called for the hearing, said he spoke with Council President Darrell Clarke afterward and said he was told the Sheriff’s Office must be called to break up such a disturbance. Williams said neither he nor Wagner considered doing that.
Controversy had shrouded the meeting in the hours and days leading up to it. An Inquirer story earlier this week had questioned whether Williams and City Controller Alan Butkovitz were pressuring Mayor Jim Kenney with the meeting, and Friday morning Kenney and Clarke released a joint statement praising the effects of the tax. One of the final lines of that statement read, “We respectfully ask the General Assembly to allow the City of Philadelphia the autonomy we need, and frankly deserve, to improve the lives of our residents.”
Williams questioned why Philly residents wouldn’t want to hold a discussion with Harrisburg leaders, who are often criticized for not doing enough to benefit the city.
“I’m a Philadelphian. Obviously I eat enough cheesesteaks and I’ve been in enough protests. I get that. That’s OK. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t even have a problem with what happened today,” he said. “What I do feel though is that we’re sort of casting this in a way that it’s this political personality versus that personality, this political party vs that political party. The truth is it’s going to require all of us to fix Pre-K across Pennsylvania, Philly being a part of it.”
A hearing like today, he continued, won’t help endear Philadelphia to the majority Republican party.
“If you think I’m — at the end of this conversation today — able to go to Harrisburg and ask for a penny more for Pre-K or anything else,” he said, “I think we’d be pretty well challenged.”
Mustafa Rashed, a spokesperson for the pro-soda-tax group Philadelphians For A Fair Future, said the protest was the group’s recourse “to the $12 million barrage of advertising” of the soda industry.
“We’re showing support,” he said. “We wanted legislators in Harrisburg to know that the city had to take upon its own initiative to fund its schools.”
Union member Jermaine Smith was one of the protesters. He supports the soda tax because he believes it will benefit children in the long run, despite what he noted have been some short-term complications. He said drowning out and canceling the meeting was a “somewhat” effective way to get the message across.
“It got their attention,” Smith said. “If nobody would’ve showed up, it would’ve been a quick meeting. They would’ve got what they wanted done and it would’ve been over. Now they have to rethink their plan. They can’t forget. Whenever they do it again, we’re going to be here again.”
Wagner’s plan is now to hold the hearing in Harrisburg and limit attendance, for the most part, to credentialed people or testifiers.
“I wanted to learn,” he said, “and I came down at the request of Senator Williams. We want the best for the children and taxpayers and citizens of Pennsylvania.”
Smith believes the soda tax is what’s best for the children.
“The little kids you saw at the end, them. In five, 10 years it’s going to affect them well,” he said. “It’s going to give them the education they need to be like [Wagner], to be a millionaire like him.”