Inside City Council’s love affair with task forces — which sound important but have zero accountability

We looked more than a dozen of these boards to see if they got anything done.

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Philadelphia City Council / Flickr

Updated Sept. 19, 11:00 a.m.

Philadelphia pols have never met a social ill they couldn’t tackle with a task force. Or perhaps a committee. Or a commission. Really tough problem? Council has special committees for that.

There’s no real distinction between these bodies, Council President Darrell Clarke’s office confirmed. No one even knows how many of these opaque boards even exist — the legislature does not keep a list of the temporary focus groups established by lawmakers.

What these numerous committees and their hundreds of board members actually do all day is ambiguous, too: the city charter does not provide guidelines for their operations or accountability. Yet some councilmembers will surely campaign for reelection next year by citing their role in the creation of new boards and task forces as a major accomplishment.

In a city with plenty of problems but little cash, the appeal is clear. Electeds get to preside over important-sounding entities — with minimal attached expense, since board positions are rarely compensated.

With the wave of the legislative wand, any lawmaker can conjure a group that will, ideally, generate policies to enact real change.

But in practice, that last part rarely happens. For Larry Ceisler, a veteran political observer and principal of Ceisler Issue and Media Advocacy, “task force” sits next to “blue-ribbon panel” and “white paper” in the category of bureaucratic buzzwords that are meant to sound authoritative — but often lack substance.

“A lot of time [a task force] is done out of sheer frustration by a political body that isn’t ready to act yet and doesn’t have the appropriate amount of information,” Ceisler said. “And sometimes it’s done for political cover and political opportunism. I can’t really recall anything solid or monumental that’s come out of one.”

Yet Council’s task force infestation continues to proliferate. And, like the humble cockroach, once these boards have taken up residence inside City Hall, they’re extremely tough to kill.

Billy Penn identified more than a dozen task forces and committees established by sitting members of Council, some of which have dragged on for years with no end in sight. Others generated reports packed with policy recommendations that have since gathered dust in City Hall. In one case, a task force’s nine months of work was undone overnight.

It is worth noting that who gets appointed, what gets done, and how long it takes can vary widely from one body to the next.

In some cases, Clarke’s office says, councilmembers are simply “appointing authorities” rather than active members of the force — but the onus is still on them to ensure progress in a timely fashion. And while they’re informally supposed to expire after a four-year term, there isn’t any formal process to “end” a task force. Council can revive a dormant group any time it pleases.

These ostensibly temporary focus groups should not be confused with Council’s 25 permanent standing committees or its five permanent advisory boards, like the Veterans Advisory Commission or the Vacant Property Review Committee. Nor should they be confused with Mayor Jim Kenney’s innumerable task forces, commissions and committees (many of which are co-chaired by councilmembers). A tour through the labyrinth of city government also includes several full-time advisory boards like the Historical Commission and the Commission on Parks and Recreation.

For some issues with dedicated task forces (see: student loan debt, gun violence) big solutions often lie far outside Council’s purview. In their defense, City Hall sources note that legislators are often pressured to show concern about issues, regardless.

But among members of Council, it’s no secret that some task forces and committees drag on indefinitely — or as long as it takes to find some kind of proposal that sounds worthy of the time spent discussing the problem. Said one senior Council aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “Something better come out of it, or the press will say you had a shitty task force.”

Here’s a list of existing and defunct task forces that Billy Penn was able to track down.

Special Committee on Student Loan Debt

Leader: Cherelle Parker

Start date: January 2016

Goal: Per the resolution, “to investigate the impact of student loan debt on older borrowers in the City of Philadelphia”

What happened: A similar version of this task force was established by former Councilman Dennis O’Brien. In early 2016, Parker established this new iteration, which has attracted interest from colleagues. Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown introduced several resolutions calling on the task force to hold hearings. But two and a half years later, the committee has yet to meet. Parker’s office says the first formal meeting — focussed on elderly residents facing loan debt — will happen before the end of the year.

Measurable impact: TBD

Bed Bug Task Force

Leader: Mark Squilla

Start date: 2014

Goal: To discuss a citywide bed bug response policy

What happened: This task force predates the current Council term, but Squilla says he’s still trying to bring its efforts to fruition. After meeting for “at least six months,” the group made a number of recommendations to the mayor’s office, per Squilla, but they haven’t gone anywhere since. (Neither have bed bugs.)

Measurable impact: TBD

Task Force on the Philadelphia Music Industry

Leader: David Oh

Start date: January 2017

Goal: Convene a group of music industry leaders to generate a report with “best practices” for how Philly can improve its music scene

What happened: Oh, who held a separate Commission on the Music Industry in 2015, does not himself attend these task force meetings. He said the group of musical industry leaders has met several times over the last 20 months, and has completed a “first draft” of their report — albeit after the one-year deadline Oh had outlined when he convened the group last winter. Once completed, the policy recommendations will be passed onto the mayor’s office for consideration. Meanwhile, Philly’s illustrious music scene continues to win national accolades.

Measurable impact: TBD

Philadelphia Film Advisory Task Force

Leader: David Oh

Start date: May 2017

Goal: “To improve Philadelphia as a place for film, television and the music industry”

What happened: Similar to the music industry task force, the year-old task force is working on a report with recommendations that will be passed on to the mayor. Oh appointed members from various arts and culture organizations, including the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, a nonprofit started by the city in 1985 that now receives local and state funding to grow the city’s film industry. On the need for the task force when there’s already a designated office, Oh said: “It is a complaint from many people, and I agree. That really raises the questions of why we have so many task forces and why aren’t we getting these things done?”

Measurable impact: TBD

Task Force on Retirement Security for Private Sector Employees in Philadelphia

Leader: Cherelle Parker

Start date: June 2016

Goal: Develop an action plan to create retirement benefits for private sector workers in Philly

What happened: With 16 appointed members, Parker’s task force met three times in nine months, and broke into three separate subcommittees that also met a few times. Parker’s office said members did produce an action plan. But their efforts came to a screeching halt in August 2017, when Congress repealed the U.S. Department of Labor regulation that allowed large cities to create retirement security programs for private employees. That national ruling deemed the task force’s goal obsolete.

Measurable impact: TBD

Special Committee on Regulatory Review and Reform

Leaders: Derek Green, Darrell Clarke

Start date: March 2017

Goal: Examine and streamline outdated legislation and regulations in the Philadelphia Code.

What happened: Alongside Department of Commerce Director Harold Epps and Chamber of Commerce President Rob Wonderling, Green said the committee has examined the city code to repeal onerous regulations and improve the city’s communication with businesses after new regulations are implemented. New software has been discussed as another possible solution. The committee has met quarterly and subcommittees met monthly. It remains ongoing.

Measurable impact: Last week, the committee released a progress report detailing 16 regulations that have been repealed since last year as a result of the special committee’s work. “We have already developed a better means of communication between public and private sector regarding regulations,” Green said. “It allows us to work more effectively, and makes it more operationally effective for businesses.”

The Problem Property Task Force

Leader: Bobby Henon

Start date: 2012

Goal: Identify “problem properties” that have accrued two or more code violations in the previous 24 months and pass along recommendations to the mayor’s office

What happened: This task force has seemingly been dissolved and is distinct from the Vacant Property Task Force of 2014. At the moment, Henon co-chairs the Mayor’s Manufacturing Task Force and sits on two other Council task forces, according to his office.

Measurable impact: According to media reports, this task force established neighborhood groups in Henon’s district to tackle neighborhood blight. In 2016, Henon passed legislation to help authorities tackle properties with chronic complaints.

Special Committee on Gun Violence Prevention

Leaders: Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Darrell Clarke

Start date: June 2017

Goal: Bring together relevant “stakeholders” and formulate a comprehensive gun violence strategy

What happened: Council has a long history of gun violence task forces. This commission spawned out of a six-hour, marathon hearing on the subject in 2016 in front of Council’s Committee on Public Safety. The commission has since convened regularly and touts a number of achievements, some more striking than others.

Measurable outcome: In the last 15 months, the most concrete outcome, it seems, was the committee’s ordinance to expand street-level interventions and grants to community violence prevention organizations. Other accomplishments provided by Johnson’s office were fairly superficial: the special committee declared gun violence a public health crisis; it supported tighter gun restrictions; and it urged the U.S. Senate to reject a bill in March 2018 which would have expanded the right to carry concealed handguns in other states.

Trash Task Force

Leader: Cindy Bass

Established: April, 2018

Goal: “The Trash Task Force solely dedicated to addressing issues of trash and dumping through policy, legislation and procedure,” according to Bass’ spokesperson Layla Jones

What happened: While styled as a policy initiative, the Trash Task Force is not actually a legislative policy focus group, but an on-the-ground project in Bass’ 8th District in Northwest Philadelphia. The group convenes twice a month.

Measurable impact: Bass’ office said the task force has organized cleanups in the district and increased signage to deter illegal dumping.

School Building and Facilities Task Force

Leader: Maria Quiñones-Sánchez

Start date: May 2018

Goal: Review, assess and recommend capital needs to improve the crumbling infrastructure at Philadelphia’s public schools

What happened: This is new task force. Quiñones-Sánchez’s office said it expects swift action in a matter of months.

Measurable impact: TBD

Youth Residential Placement Task Force

Leader: Helen Gym

Start date: June, 2018

Goal: Come up with a policy response to the reports of abuse at the city’s residential education centers

What happened: This is another young task force. Gym’s office said it plans to have a set of policy recommendations in no more than five months.

Measurable impact: TBD

Other seemingly extant task forces and committees