In the early 1900s, people counted on the City Hall clock to keep in sync

Civil and unruly. Serious and silly. Wildly entertaining and mindboggingly boring. City Council sessions contain multitudes, but there’s one thing they’re not: on time.

With just three months left in a four-year term, minutes show the current Council is the most laissez-faire body in over a decade when it comes to prompt sessions.

The municipal legislature’s weekly meetings start later and later each year, records indicate. The growing time lapse has been a quiet grievance for some elected officials, as well as members of the public.

A Billy Penn analysis of timestamps on more than 350 meeting records over the last decade and found a crystal-clear trend. Lawmakers start their weekly session less punctually than they used to. This happens at the expense of people who take off work to attend the meetings, some advocates say.

City Council sessions are supposed to start at 10 a.m. But this year to date, the Thursday meetings have an average start time of 11 a.m. A decade ago that average was 10:18 a.m., according to meeting minutes.

The latest things have kicked off during this current term is 11:50 a.m. The earliest this particular Council body has been called to order is still 11 minutes past the professed start time, per records. That means any given Thursday represents a nearly two-hour window of uncertainty.

Councilmember Bill Greenlee is known as one of the more punctual members of the legislature.

Greenlee, who is retiring at the end of this term, has criticized his colleagues publicly and privately over their lackadaisical attitude toward start times. It applies not only to Thursday’s scheduled meetings, he said, but to other public hearings throughout the week.

“We get criticized unfairly…on a lot of stuff,” Greenelee told Billy Penn. “Why give ’em one by starting Council an hour and 15 minutes late? I’m not talking behind anybody’s back. I’ve said this to the Council President. To everybody.”

‘We need to respect their time’

Amanda Mcillmurray, political director with the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia, notes that City Council meetings are a primary venue people can go to directly put pressure on their legislators.

But unlike paid lobbyists, they’re taking time off to do so.

“I think [the lack of punctuality] makes it really inaccessible to working people,” said McIllmurray.  “It’s already during the work day and people don’t have the financial flexibility to take off a full day of work. We need to accomodate people. We need to respect their time.”

Often, when sessions get contentious and lead to long debates, people who came to hear a certain bill leave prematurely because the schedule gets so far behind. That timing is sometimes beyond Council’s control, but starting an hour late or later only makes matters worse, Mcillmurray said.

The sticklerism has changed under recent leadership.

Sources recalled that former Council President Anna Verna ran a tight ship between 1999 and her retirement in 2011. On average, the start time during Verna’s last four-year term was 10:21 a.m.

The term following, under Council President Darrell Clarke, the average tee time was 10:38 a.m. In the last four years, from 2016 to date, that average has climbed up to 10:54 a.m., according to Billy Penn’s analysis of timestamps.

Does punctuality = productivity?

Clarke spokesperson Joe Grace said the president’s office understands concerns about the fluctuating start time. He said it’s a matter of internal discussions around the day’s agenda.

“The reality is that many conversations occur prior to the start time involving Councilmembers, the Administration, staff and others, about issues pertaining to each session,” Grace wrote via email. “Council is focused every day, and in every session, on the issues that matter most to citizens.”

It’s unclear how much one person can shoulder the blame for the shift. There are myriad situations that could hold up the 30-plus weekly sessions each year. Even if Clarke drops the gavel at 10 a.m. sharp, at least nine of 17 councilmembers must be present for the meetings to officially begin, rules stipulate.

Longtime City Council attendees like lobbyist John Hawkins say there’s no functional difference between starting exactly on time or somewhat late.

“Mrs. Verna always made sure caucus started at 10 a.m.,” Hawkins said. “Did that make Council any more efficient or productive? I don’t see that that’s the case.”

Council staffers privately say that extended public testimonies, councilmembers’ speeches, and honorary ceremonies that cause more time fluctuation than the lost morning hours.

Greenlee, usually the first one seated in Council’s chambers on Thursday, said the tardiness has a compounding effect among all councilmembers.

Said the retiring lawmaker: “Some councilmembers come right in the beginning and see others aren’t there.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...