Is Philly City Council doing a good job? We analyzed 15k bills to find out

The increasingly powerful body does a lot of lawmaking, but some issues — like the city’s distressingly high poverty rate — refuse to budge.

Philadelphians march for civil rights outside City Hall in 2016

Philadelphians march for civil rights outside City Hall in 2016

Alexa Smith / for Billy Penn

On the drama scale in City Hall, a bill getting voted down on the floor sits somewhere between a fistfight and an FBI investigation.

Philadelphia City Council introduced over 15,000 bills and resolutions in the last two decades. According to a Billy Penn/PlanPhilly analysis, since the start of this century, all legislation that made it to a floor vote has passed — with just five exceptions.

Councilmembers often tout their prodigious lawmaking. But many were shocked to learn just how much of their own legislation actually gets turned into law. Most guesses hovered around a 10% success rate.

Between 2000 and 2019, Philadelphia lawmakers passed about 75% of the bills they introduced, and 92% of resolutions — like the ceremonial gestures recognizing a spring day in 2004 as “Southwest Airlines Day,” or October 2013 as “Philly Plays Scrabble Month.”

City Council’s high rate of passage stands in stark contrast to the gridlocked U.S. Congress, where only 5% of bills and resolutions pass, and the partisan Pennsylvania legislature, which passes only a few hundred of the thousands of proposals introduced every year.

The analysis offers a window into what Philly’s 17-member ruling body has accomplished over the last two decades — and what it hasn’t. Despite plenty of talk about solutions, one thing that hasn’t budged is the city’s distressingly high poverty rate.

“We’re 20 years down the road and we’re still the poorest big city in the country with kids struggling in under-performing schools,” said Dan Fee, a longtime political operative in the city. “It’s not just about passing bills. It’s about measuring results.”

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What was Council actually working on? Billy Penn/PlanPhilly found that 1 in 4 bills detailed some form of councilmanic prerogative, the oft-criticized tradition that allows the city’s district councilmembers near-total control over planning and land use matters.

At least 1 in 6 legislative efforts involved some type of honorary resolution, commemoration or ceremonial statement urging action from another government body.

Substantive policy proposals, while hard to quantify, have been rarer — but also appear to be on the rise over the last decade.

In January 2020, four new lawmakers will join what former Mayor Bill Green once called the “worst legislative body in the free world.” The new wave joins a Council that’s become more independent and forceful, often leading the charge in sweeping policy changes.

How only 5 bills failed in 20 years

The few council bills that didn’t pass illuminate some of the challenges of lawmaking in a big city facing deep systemic challenges and shallow pockets.

Just ask Councilmember Bill Greenlee. Last spring, the retiring lawmaker was the primary sponsor of one of the five bills that failed over the last two decades. In 2018, Greenlee and Councilmember Cindy Bass were whipping their colleagues to back a proposal to put restrictions on doctor gifts from the pharmaceutical industry.

The measure was pitched as a counter to the overprescribing practices many say contributed to the opioid crisis. But critics argued the bill was overly broad, while pharma and hotel lobbyists leaned on lawmakers, many of whom received campaign donations from those industries. Greenlee, sensing danger, ordered the bill to the floor suddenly on a chilly Thursday in February.

“The lobbying effort against it was so intense, and it wasn’t going to lessen,” Greenlee said. “So why give the lobbyists one more week? We might as well take a shot at it.”

Council struck down the bill down by a decisive 9-to-5 margin.

“I got kinda dramatic,” the veteran councilmember recalled. “I was shocked by a few votes.”

So apoplectic was Greenlee that he violated one of the unspoken rules among councilmembers and engaged in public smack talk, tweeting a list of every colleague who voted “no” on the bill.

That kind of fanfare is rare on City Hall’s fourth floor. The only other “failed” efforts in the last 20 years:

  • A bill to limit the number of slot machine gambling licenses issued along the Delaware riverfront (2006)
  • A resolution calling on the Philadelphia Police Department to ramp up immigration status checks with arrestees (2007)
  • Councilmember Mark Squilla’s first go at a plastic bag ban (2009)
  • Councilmember David Oh’s ill-fated call to audit the Philadelphia Parking Authority (2016)

Committee, where aspiring laws go to die

Greenlee’s experience illustrates a quiet Council truism: Don’t go to the floor unless you’ve secured the votes. Squilla, who hopes his revived plastic bag ban will pass this year, this year, said acting prematurely risks alienating future support.

“Why piss off those people who may vote against it this time when you could try to get their vote next time,” said Squilla. “If I’d put people on the spot earlier, they may not have been supportive this time around.”

There’s a reason many councilmembers feel like more bills fail than actually do. Proposals die inglorious deaths all the time — 1 in 4 bills, per the analysis.

Call it “murder by committee.”

After a piece of serious legislation is introduced, it’s first reviewed by a Council committee dedicated to that issue. At that point, it’s up to the sponsor to push for a hearing and then usher the bill to the floor for final passage. Observers say effective lawmakers can navigate this process by making compromises and cutting deals. Some lawmakers don’t bother.

The nail in the coffin comes at the end of a four-year term, at which point any of the hundreds of unpassed bills are marked “lapsed.” That happens about 17% of the time, according to the Billy Penn/PlanPhilly analysis. In rarer cases, lawmakers formally withdraw their bills. Other times, Council passes legislation only to have it stymied by a mayoral veto, although this has yet to happen in Mayor Jim Kenney’s tenure.

DOA legislation can have a political purpose. “Sometimes you put bills in to get a gauge on how people feel,” Greenlee said. “It’s clear it’s not going anywhere.”

From mayor’s yes man to powerful force

Over the last few years, Philly has garnered a reputation among big U.S. cities as progressive, and many of the headlines stemmed from reforms that began in City Council.

That storyline reflects a change in how the body operates. Big achievements used to come solely from the mayor’s office.

“In the last two decades, City Council has become a much more independent body,” said lobbyist John Hawkins, who started as an aide to then-Councilman Kenney back in the 1990s.

Hawkins and others trace the pivotal moment to the 1999 election of John Street as mayor. Street was the first city lawmaker since the ’60s to clinch the post. Council’s role as a pipeline to the mayor’s office has since snowballed. Street’s successors both carried the torch, and most of the rumored contenders for 2023 are current councilmembers.

Adversity between Council and Mayor’s office can elevate a lawmaker’s profile and help develop their political brand.

Phil Goldsmith, a former deputy mayor under Green and managing director under Street, noted Council’s strength has grown considerably. “No one ever thinks — whether in Philly, Harrisburg or Washington — that they have enough power,” he said. “But if you look at it historically, they have a lot more than they used to.”

Prior to the Street era, councilmembers served mostly to approve the budget, Goldsmith said. They roadblocked the mayor’s agenda when their constituents raised hell.

“In the past, it’s been zoning changes, councilmanic prerogative and so forth,” Goldsmith said. “Today, it’s more substantive, and the big legislation isn’t just coming out of the mayor’s office.”

Where Council’s power lies: real estate and regulation

From the beginning, there is one sphere of control City Council has always retained: power over zoning, city land sales and other quotidian rules in their districts — as outlined in the city’s governing document, the Home Rule Charter.

In recent decades, that parochial control has expanded as new regulations crop up around things like bike lanes, sidewalk cafes and food trucks.

The 10 district councilmembers are given vast latitude when it comes to these kinds of hyper-local concerns. It is a vanishingly rare instance when even one member will vote against this legislation, and debate is practically non-existent.

More than 4,000 bills and resolutions introduced over the last two decades sought to regulate parking, alter zoning designations, dispose of city-owned land, or grant permissions for things like sidewalk cafes.

Adherents to the system argue district councilmembers know their constituents best. Former Councilmember Frank DiCicco, who represented the Delaware waterfront district now repped by Squilla, points to his three-year lock on legislation to enable the construction of casinos.

“Go ask the people in Pennsport. Northern Liberties, Society Hill and Whitman if they think councilmanic prerogative is not a good thing,” said DiCicco, who is now a lobbyist.

Many of these hyperlocal bills involve zoning tweaks, parking regulations and minor street alterations. Council is required by law to pass a resolution to sell a piece of city land: that accounted for 1 in 10 pieces of all legislation, the analysis found.

Some of the matters that fall under prerogative are minor, yet City Council approval is required to open a newsstand — 94 bills, for example — or erect a sidewalk cafe (41). Members can act to ban food trucks or vendors from a block of their district, or from the whole thing, as Brian O’Neill did earlier this year.

“I dare say that district councilmembers have the very challenging responsibility of fixing things in their communities,” Councilmember Cherelle Parker said, defending the practice. “People expect results. We don’t get the opportunity to raise an issue and then leave.”

The resolution will be televised

City Council has come under fire for its proclivity for honorifics: resolutions recognizing this community group or that Good Samaritan deed.

The Billy Penn/PlanPhilly analysis found more than 16% of all legislation over the past 20 years served to “honor” various entities, like the 2002 resolution lauding Temple grad and Philly native Bill Cosby.

“It’s a lot,” said veteran political consultant and lobbyist Maurice Floyd, stifling a laugh. “A lot of times I gotta walk out of there. There’s too many. I can’t take it.”

Floyd did defend some symbolic gestures, echoing councilmembers who say part of their job is to elevate constituents. One 2016 resolution recognized a heroic Philadelphian who was shot five times after tackling a gunman in Rittenhouse Square. Hundreds of similar resolutions applaud civic leaders and community groups for their tireless gifts to the city, in big ways and small.

Criticisms have also been levied against Council for their myriad task forces, special committees or commissions on an issue du jour. The analysis found 38 bills or resolutions establishing task forces or authorizing them to perform some duty.

One of Council’s more frequent honorary habits? Renaming days, weeks and months of the year. They’ve done it well over 600 times in the last two decades. For instance:

  • “Payroll Week”
  • “Beat the Reds Week”
  • “Praise is the Cure Weekend”
  • “Mind Your Holidays Day”
  • “Menstrual Hygiene Day”
councillegislation-wordcloud

A good bill is hard to find

When district councilmembers try their hand at more ambitious legislation, results are uneven. Just passing a law doesn’t mean it will be acted upon.

Cindy Bass’s 2017 “stop-and-go” legislation attempted to regulate the use of bulletproof glass in stores that sell alcohol to go. The proposal inflamed controversy and stoked racial tension, with many Asian Americans opposing it and many Black people in favor.

The bill passed, but not before it was amended with vague language instructing the Department of Licenses and Inspections to institute regulations on the “use or removal” of protective glass — something no one interviewed at the time believed the agency would do.

In other cases, bills generate huge controversy and headlines despite having little discernible impact.

Councilmember David Oh’s recent blitz to establish a committee examining parent-child separations by the Department of Human Services drew dozens of distraught mothers to Council’s chambers for weeks on end. Oh’s colleagues eventually conceded to his push for the committee, although many noted that Council’s actual influence over those domestic issues is limited or even non-existent.

Some bills become so watered down during the legislative process that the original intent is largely lost.

Curtis Jones’s “Good Cause” eviction legislation angered landlord groups to such an extent that the sponsor himself eventually amended to be much narrower in scope.

How often does a big win happen?

Philadelphia’s current system, set up in 1952, operates with a strong mayor at the top, and is designed to leave Council to mind minor issues and act as a check on big changes.

That model is changing as councilmembers increasingly seize the opportunity to tackle game-changing legislation on their own.

“I think you’ve got some very strong people on City Council, like Helen Gym and Allan Domb that are much more proactive in their own individual agendas,” said Goldsmith, the former deputy mayor.

Back when he was in Council, Jim Kenney was known to introduce a substantive bill or two, such as his 2014 marijuana decriminalization initiative. Bill Greenlee championed paid sick day legislation for seven years before its winning passage — after he suffered two vetoes from Mayor Nutter.

Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez created the Philadelphia Land Bank, ruffling a lot of feathers in the process, and recently spearheaded the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In the session that will come to an end this December, Helen Gym has done the strongest job of distinguishing herself, with major legislative initiatives on tenants’ rights and the Fair Work Week regulations.

Next term, City Council is set to become younger and more left-leaning with the addition of four new members, including one from the progressive Working Families Party.

Council is already more aggressive and sophisticated than it used to be — and the trend appears likely to accelerate.

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