Johnny Doc corruption charges

How will Bobby Henon be replaced? There’ll be a special election, and ward leaders get to pick the nominees

The timing is up to Council President Clarke.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon in 2019

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon in 2019

Emma Lee / WHYY
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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Philadelphia’s legislative branch is down one member. Early Thursday morning, former District 6 Councilmember Bobby Henon submitted his official resignation to Council President Darrell Clarke.

The resignation comes after Henon was convicted of nine federal charges in November of 2021 — and it leaves his Northeast Philly seat vacant.

So what happens next? Who will fill Henon’s shoes, how, and when? Here’s a look at how the replacement process works.

Wait, what happened?

Robert Henon, who was first elected to serve Northeast Philly’s sixth district in 2011, submitted his resignation to Council President Darrell Clarke.

He’s served on Council for the last 10 years, and was Democratic majority leader from 2015 until last fall.

“I am grateful to the residents of the 6th District for allowing me to serve as Councilman for the past 10 years,” Henon said in the statement to the Inquirer. “I worked hard each and every day to be an outspoken and bold advocate for the hardworking people.”

Why?

Back in November, Henon was convicted of nine federal charges in connection with the IBEW Local 98 union and its former leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, including conspiracy, bribery, and wire fraud. The most serious charge carries a max of 20 years in prison.

Henon’s sentencing is currently set for Feb. 22, at which point he would have been forced to give up his Council seat — and his government pension.

So why’d he resign now?

After the guilty verdict came down, surprising many observers, Henon said he planned to keep his seat until sentencing in February. Mayor Jim Kenney, who has long been a political ally, declined to call him out.

At the city level, only Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez was willing to do that. She publicly called on Henon to resign, and announced her plans last month to introduce legislation that would ban second jobs that earn more than $25k annual for council members.

State rep. Jared Solomon expressed a similar feeling, saying District 6 would “be better served by an empty chair.”

Henon hasn’t yet publicly commented on why he decided to do it earlier than that.

But today was set to be the first Council session of the year after the legislative body’s holiday break. It’s possible he (or his colleagues) thought it made more sense for him to leave before a new year of work began.

How will his seat get filled?

Per Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter, the seat will be filled by a special election. When will it take place? That’s up to the City Council president.

Right now, that’s District 5 Councilmember Darrell Clarke, so he’ll get to make the call on when to schedule the election in Northeast Philly.

“I will take the appropriate steps authorized under the Home Rule Charter regarding this vacancy in Council in due course and in full accordance with city law,” Clarke said in a statement. “It is important that the people of the Sixth District have representation in City Council.”

When’s that going to happen?

That’s unclear. The city charter doesn’t set a time limit on how long a Council seat can remain empty.

To get things moving, Clarke first has to issue a writ of elections, and then the special election has to take place no fewer than 30 days later. He hasn’t committed to a date for either of those yet.

Also, it’s possible there won’t even be a separate election — since the Charter also allows Clarke to just wait until the next regularly scheduled primary or general election to fill the seat.

Who will his replacement be?

That’s not totally clear yet either. But the district’s ward leaders are the ones who get to pick the nominees. Then voters will decide who ultimately fills the seat at the ballot box.

So far, it seems like Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Driscoll has good odds, per Inquirer City Hall reporter Sean Walsh.

Ward leaders hold a lot of power in Philadelphia. Most local elections are significantly influenced by them. Candidates often court them, and sometimes they’re rewarded with direct lines of communication to elected officials — or jobs inside their offices.

Has this ever happened before?

Previous City Council members have resigned. But not usually like this.

Philadelphia law requires elected officials to step down if they want to run for a new position, so that’s happened several times. Jim Kenney left his at-large Council seat in 2015 to make his mayoral bid. His seat wasn’t filled until the regularly scheduled general election. Before that, former Mayor John Street did the same thing — giving up his position as Council President in 1998. Street was succeeded by current District 5 Councilmember Darrell Clarke in a 1999 special election.

Another at-large legislator, Bill Green, resigned in 2014 so he could work for the statewide School Reform Commission. His job was filled by former Councilmember Ed Neilson in a special election that aligned with the May 2014 primary.

Fraud-related resignations are a little more rare. At the state level, former Pa. Sen. Vince Fumo resigned after he faced his own federal indictment, but before he was convicted. So did state Sen. Henry Cianfrani in the ’70s.

What else is going on with City Council?

Coincidentally, Council is working on another effort that has the potential to change the foundation of Philly’s legislative branch.

Legislation was introduced in City Council today to revise the boundaries of its 10 districts — which is required to happen once every decade following the results of the U.S. Census. Next week, the redistricting bill will undergo a public hearing.

Meantime, Council President Clarke said Council will keep working on the important issues.

“City Council will not be distracted by this event, and remains focused on the urgent issues confronting our city – public safety, gun violence, the recovery from COVID-19, restarting our economy, and creating more jobs, opportunity and hope for every Philadelphian,” he said in a statement. “We’ll keep doing our jobs for the people of Philadelphia.”

Want some more? Explore other Johnny Doc corruption charges stories.

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