Detail of the mantelpiece in the Mayor's Reception Room at Philadelphia City Hall. (Bradley Maule/Philly Skyline)

As Philadelphia prepares to elect its 100th mayor, there’s an unusually high number of people contending for the job. But what does the job entail?

In short: a lot.

Philly has a “strong mayor” form of government, which basically means the mayor has a decent-sized chunk of administrative power that’s independent from anything City Council does or approves. 

The mayor — who must be at least 25 years old and a U.S. citizen who’s lived in Philadelphia three years or more — proposes the city’s annual budget, appoints tons of officials, sets priorities for how the city’s administration works with the resources it has, and approves or vetoes council legislation. They also serve as the public face of Philadelphia.

Billy Penn chatted with several folks who’ve worked in mayoral administrations and took a spin through Philly’s Home Rule Charter to get a sense of the scope and duties of the position.

Here’s a summary of what we learned. 

As ‘chief executive officer,’ set a direction for the city

The city charter explicitly defines the role of mayor as CEO of the City of Philadelphia: the person “responsible for the conduct of the executive and administrative work of the city and for law enforcement within its boundaries.”

In the big picture, the mayor’s job involves two main things, said Michael DiBerardinis, a former managing director in the Kenney administration who now teaches at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government.

For one, it’s making sure the “day-to-day work” of the city gets done, he told Billy Penn: trash pickups, permitting, rec center operations, and so forth. The second big piece of the job involves “advancing policy initiatives that really make a difference” in tackling big issues like poverty and public education.

A good mayor, per DiBerardinis, will clearly articulate their objectives at the beginning of their administration, so those goals can become “accountability factors” as time goes on.

Appoint and manage dozens of people with power

The mayor can’t manage all the different aspects of city administration on their own, so they have to look to other people to make that happen. Choosing the right people for those roles can be important.

“The buck stops with the mayor, but the responsibility for delivering those services falls with the departments who run them and the cabinet officials and the executive directors who run those departments,” said George R. Burrell, who served as a senior official under former Philly mayors Bill Green and John Street, and as an at-large city councilmember.

Some of the major appointments a mayor makes, include his chief of staff and personal staff, his key advisors, various commissioners, and the managing director, who oversees numerous city departments.

An administration is shaped by who the mayor chooses to empower, and who the mayor chooses to ignore.

Overall, the charter gives the mayor the authority to appoint dozens of people. Here are some of them:

Unilaterally appointed by the mayor:

  • Managing Director
  • Director of Finance
  • Director of Planning and Development
  • Director of Commerce 
  • Director of Labor
  • City Representative
  • Director of Aviation
  • Director of Immigrant Affairs
  • Director of the Office of LGBT Affairs
  • Philadelphia Tax Reform Commission (4 of 15 members)
  • Free Library Board of Trustees (partial)
  • Youth Commission (4 of 21 members)
  • Zoning Code Commission (5 of 31 members)
  • Jobs Commission (9 of 17 members)
  • Commission for Women (10 of 27 members)
  • Commission on Universal Pre-Kindergarten (5 of 17 members)

Appointed by the mayor, requires Council approval:

  • City Solicitor
  • Insurance Public Advocate
  • Public School Family and Child Advocate
  • Handicapped and Disabled Advocate
  • Victim Advocate
  • Board of Ethics (5 members)
  • Board of Education (9 members)
  • Zoning Board of Adjustment (7 members)
  • ​​Philadelphia Community Reinvestment Commission (12 of 21 members)

Selected by managing director, approved by the mayor:

  • Police Commissioner
  • Health Commissioner
  • Fire Commissioner
  • Street Commissioner
  • Parks and Recreation Commissioner
  • Welfare Commissioner
  • Water Commissioner
  • Commissioner of Public Property
  • Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections
  • Commissioner of Records
  • Prisons Commissioner
  • Commissioner of Fleet Services

Selected by finance director, approved by the mayor:

  • Revenue Commissioner
  • Procurement Commissioner

Which of the appointed positions has the most influence on how the city is run? It’s hard to say, according to Burrell. An administration is shaped by who the mayor chooses to empower, he said, and who the mayor chooses to ignore.

Say yes or no to what City Council does, and recommend things, too

Part of the mayor’s job is approving City Council’s legislation — or not. 

Once Council passes an ordinance, the mayor can sign it into law, or veto it and send it back to Council with written reasons as to why they don’t approve. Council can override the veto if two-thirds of members vote to pass the legislation within a week of it being returned.

Per the city charter, the mayor can also “recommend by message in writing to the Council all such measures connected with the affairs of the city, the protection and the improvement of its government and finances, and the promotion of the welfare of its people.” 

The mayor has the power to call a special Council session “when required by public necessity.”

Wield most of the control over the city’s purse strings

It’s the mayor’s responsibility every year to report on the city’s finances to City Council and to propose an operating budget and a capital budget for the next fiscal year.

The budget is subject to council approval, and they can make modifications to it.

“If [the mayor has] ambition around policy and service objectives, they’re going to need Council support around the budget making,” DiBerardinis said. “Good mayors work really hard at that relationship.”

The mayor has total discretion on what he or she is going to spend their money on … They are an independent czar.

But Council can’t get too specific in deciding how the city spends its money. The Home Rule Charter requires appropriations to be made in “lump sum amounts” in certain broad categories — personal services; materials, supplies, and equipment; debt service; and any other categories recommended by the mayor — for each city department or office.

In other words, councilmembers can vote to move money from department to department or bucket to bucket within those departments, but generally can’t dictate exactly how those agencies spend their money. 

“City Council cannot make the mayor spend money,” Burrell said. “The mayor has total discretion on what he or she is going to spend their money on … They are an independent czar who gets to make their decisions about what they want to do with the money that’s in the city’s budget. And then they go back and fight with City Council about it later on.”

Build and maintain relationships — both inside Philadelphia and out

As the chief executive of the city, it can be beneficial for the mayor to maintain relationships with lots of different stakeholders, beyond just a working relationship with City Council.

Municipal employees and the unions that represent them are an important group for a mayor to build a close relationship with, since they’re the people who make it possible for the mayor to keep city services running and carry out their policy objectives. Other significant groups include non-municipal organized labor, the business community, and the nonprofit community.

Effective mayors also have relationships “that transcend his party, his/her city and government,” said Phil Goldsmith, a former deputy mayor and managing director.

Mayoral administrations also interface with the city’s delegations in Harrisburg and Washington, and sometimes even with the White House. The mayor may also attend conferences of mayors from around the country to learn about how other leaders are handling issues in their municipalities.

Deal with whatever happens to come up

Dealing with the unexpected is the most overlooked aspect of the mayor’s job, Goldsmith told Billy Penn. 

He pointed to some recent examples where unanticipated events have made a big impact on a mayor’s tenure, like the 2008 financial crisis during the Nutter administration and COVID during the Kenney administration.

“How flexible and adroit a mayor is rarely discussed in a campaign,” Goldsmith said.

Mayoral candidates often offer plenty of policy ideas and plans on the campaign trail, but once in office, a mayor has to be responsive to whatever issues may arise — and that may not fit their preexisting plans for the office.

How flexible and adroit a mayor is rarely discussed in a campaign.

“When you’re a candidate, you get to frame the questions in the context that you want them, and your answers always work,” said Burrell, the former senior official under Green and Street. “Once you become mayor, the facts are the facts. And you can’t change them.”

Make the city better, be comfy handling criticism, and just generally be ‘the face of the government’

The city charter charges the mayor with using their position to “promote and improve the government of the city.” That includes encouraging growth and facilitating “the prosperity and social well-being” of Philadelphians.

Also part of the mayor’s job is keeping residents abreast of what’s going on in government, whether it’s about day-to-day things or emergency situations.

The person has to be a “good communicator,” former deputy mayor Goldsmith said — someone who’s honest, good at listening, and can show that they care “about more than the city’s VIPs.” 

They also need to be prepared to act “as a grief counsel” for Philadelphians who’ve lost loved ones, he said — “whether it be police officers, firemen, city workers or victims of gun violence.”

And a mayor has to be ready to field criticism for whatever goes on in their administration. The person in that role is “the face of government,” Burrell told Billy Penn, and ultimately, assumes responsibility when things go wrong.

“The mayor is the face of all of that no matter who’s responsible for doing the work,” Burrell said. “The person who gets the criticism when it doesn’t happen is the mayor.”

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...