The police commissioner's conference room in the Philadelphia Public Services Building. (Erin Blewett for Billy Penn)

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One out of four of the proposed ballot questions was rejected by voters, reversing a common tendency for such questions to pass by wide margins in Pennsylvania. 

With nearly three-quarters of precincts reporting, ballot question No. 3 failed to pass, with 54% of voters voting no on loosening requirements for the hiring of police oversight board staff to provide more flexibility in hiring. 

The other three proposals to amend the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter passed by solid margins.

The charter change questions were the only thing on the May 16 primary ballot open to all voters, no matter whether they’re registered with a major political party or not.

The charter is like a city constitution, overseeing the structure, roles and responsibilities of local government. It was created on April 17, 1951, and gets amended all the time. City Council first debates and then votes on potential changes, placing them on the next municipal election ballot. Voters then have to approve them by simple majority.  

It’s extremely rare for a ballot question to fail, as was seen in this election.

Here is a refresher on what the questions were and what their passage and rejection means for Philadelphia and its city charter going forward. 

Question 1: Should Philly be able to stash more cash for a ‘rainy day’?

This amendment, which passed with 67% approval, adds a new requirement for the city to put a larger percentage of any annual budget surplus into the “rainy day fund,” also known as the Budget Stabilization Reserve (BSR). 

The benefit of doing this was made clear during the pandemic, when in early 2020, the $34.3 million saved “when the city drew on its BSR fund to help avoid even more devastating funding cuts,” said Finance Director Rob Dubow during a February Council hearing.

The city had not allocated any money to the fund between 2011-2020 because Philly only once reached the required 5% activation point. It wasn’t until federal pandemic relief became available in 2021 that funds were added. Some of those funds are still on hand. 

The new method would be first used by Philly’s new mayor for FY2025. The threshold for when a deposit is made would be lowered from 5% to 3%, and if the city managed to reach a projected year-end balance between 5%-8%, an even larger deposit would be  

For reference, the Government Finance Officers Association recommends a 17% fund balance, which simply hasn’t been on the cards for Philly

Question 2: Should Philly change the city charter to force a focus on workforce and job training?

This charter amendment, which passed with 65% approval, will create and fund a new Division of Workforce Solutions within the Department of Commerce.  It had nearly universal support from relevant agencies and political leaders in the Kenney administration, City Council, and Chamber of Commerce.

The city already has an agency that focuses on support for employers — the Office of Business Development and Workforce Solutions. The new division instead is meant to focus on potential workers. 

As described, it will offer job training and access to employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors, plus also “develop information” on city-run and other workforce development initiatives. 

Question 3: Should the city loosen requirements for police oversight board staff to provide more flexibility in hiring?

Philadelphians rejected the proposal to exempt the Citizens Police Oversight Commission (CPOC) from using civil service requirements when hiring. Supporters of the exemption cited staffing difficulties and a desire to expand the pool of candidates as reasons to make the change. 

One commissioner described the current hiring process as “lengthy and arduous” — a sentiment that’s echoed in other municipal departments.

If the change went through, CPOC would be able to “look at candidates that may have a more diverse educational background,” said Anthony Glass, director of legislation and policy for City Councilmember Curtis Jones.

The CPOC itself was created with a November 2020 ballot question, replacing the relatively toothless Police Advisory Commission. It’s tasked with boosting transparency of the police department, investigating claims and complaints of police misconduct or violence, overseeing and advising police on their conduct with residents, and helping improve police-community relations. 

Question 4: Should Philly install a new cabinet-level public safety director?

This question, approved by 61% of voters, means Philly will establish an Office of the Chief Public Safety Director, with a $265,000 director who reports directly to the mayor.

The office will be in charge of coordinating public safety efforts across police, fire, prisons, and emergency management departments, as well as recreation and other agencies. City Council proposed it after studying how things work in Trenton, Newark, and Chicago.

Council President Darrell Clarke described the change as “a policy initiative well worth trying” amid an epidemic of gun violence. 

The director would provide guidance and initial approvals for programs and policies, such as violence prevention programs. The person would also consult on safety-related budgets, evaluate program effectiveness, oversee the security of city facilities, and maintain relationships with the schools, courts, and outside organizations. 

Unusually for a cabinet-level position, the mayoral-selected candidate for director will require Council approval.

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Heather J. Chin

Heather Chin is Billy Penn's deputy editor. She previously was a digital producer at the Inquirer and an editor at outlets both print and digital — from national breaking news service Flipboard to hyperlocal...