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When things got too rowdy in City Council’s chambers, Anna Verna would bang the gavel and calmly but firmly call for order.
“There is entirely too much noise in the chamber,” the lawmaker was known to say.
It was that calm, collected leadership city officials remembered Tuesday when news broke of Verna’s death at age 90. A South Philadelphia native and the daughter of a councilmember, Verna entered the family trade of city government at a young age.
First elected to Council herself in 1975, she became the longest-serving city employee at the time of her retirement more than three decades later.
And she was a trailblazer. In 1999, Verna became the first woman president of Philadelphia City Council — a momentous achievement, especially in the eyes of other women lawmakers.
“We broke other barriers, but not before she did,” recalled former West Philadelphia Councilmember Jannie Blackwell, who was first elected in 1992. “Her people loved her.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who heads the city’s Democratic Party, described Verna as a devoted civil servant who greeted Philadelphia’s often unruly political circles with class.
“She had her own style,” Brady said. “Nobody disliked her — without a doubt the most well-respected politician in the city of Philadelphia.”
Verna got her first job as a secretary to then-City Treasurer Richardson Dilworth, who would go on to become mayor. In 1967, her father William Cibotti was elected to represent Council’s 2nd District, which covers parts of Center City, South, and Southwest Philadelphia, and Verna went on to work with him.
Councilmember Cibotti died of a heart attack in 1975 and his daughter took over his seat in a special election the following year, besting more than half a dozen men who were candidates in the race.
During her time in the “big chair” as council president, fellow lawmakers said they respected Verna’s directness on policy issues in City Hall. She was not one to waste time, they said, or to cross an ally whose support she had promised on a particular bill.
“You knew when she was with you on an issue and when she wasn’t with you on an issue, but she was never hostile or angry or nasty,” said retired City Councilmember Marian Tasco.
Verna opted to retire instead of seeking her 10th term in office, and Darrell Clarke succeeded her as council president. On Tuesday, Clarke said he and council staffers privately shared fond recollections about Verna as they prepared for another day of exceptionally heated budget negotiations.
“I think about how she would respond to some of the activities in today’s political world,” Clarke said.
Mayor Jim Kenney offered his condolences for his former colleague on Twitter, saying Verna was “like a big sister” to him.
“My thoughts are with her family and loved ones during this difficult time,” the mayor added.
A service and mass for family and friends will be held Friday, June 18, at the Church of St. Richard’s in Philadelphia.