City Council 101: Your Primer for the Fall Session

With Philadephia City Council’s fall session beginning next week, Hall Monitor is beginning its annual “City Council 101” series. On our previous show, we provided a brief outline of how council works, and next week we’ll be previewing the upcoming session.

This upcoming session will be unique for several reasons. City Council President Darrell Clarke, who has presided over council for nearly twelve years, will retire at the term’s end. The battle to succeed him will likely pick up steam after the November election, but the five contenders have already laid the groundwork.

We will see a new council and mayor elected in November who will take their positions in January. While many view the general election as a perfunctory exercise whose results are already determined, there is still the possibility of an electoral surprise somewhere on the ballot.

Legislatively, there are large-scale issues facing council, not least of which is the proposed 76ers arena near Chinatown. The opposition to the plan has remained white-hot this summer, and there is no reason to expect supporters or those in opposition to change tact now. Councilmember Mark Squilla, a candidate for the City Council Presidency, will have a near-final say in whether the project goes forward and whether or not legislation is proposed before the end of the session.

And there are always the problems of crime and poverty; Philadelphia’s twin scourges have not diminished in any meaningful way despite small drops in gun violence touted by those in power. The two problems are inextricably linked, and while there has been acknowledgment, we have seen little legislation addressing both issues headlong.

With all these issues and more facing council, how do they get things done? The answer is, by necessity, formulaic and surprisingly effective. Members can offer legislation that can be passed in under a month, although it rarely happens at this speed. Largely unchanged since the 1951 charter referendum, which ushered in local government as we know it, city council exists as follows.

The Philadelphia City Council is the legislative body of Philadelphia’s local government. Much like the federal government, Philadelphia has three branches: the executive (mayor and cabinet), the judicial (courts of common pleas and municipal court), and the legislative.

Council comprises 17 members, ten of which are elected from districts and seven who are elected at-large. Two at-large seats are reserved for the minority party, in this case, anyone except a Democrat. Until recently, Republicans had always held these seats, but that tradition has changed with the election of Working Families Party member Kendra Brooks.

The council is elected every four years in the same cycle as the mayor. The most recent election was 2019, and the next will be this fall. All members are up for election simultaneously and will take their seats in January.

The new council then chooses a president, and the parties on the council choose leaders. Typically, the majority elects a majority leader, whip, and deputy whip. In this current session, the minority party did not elect leaders.

Once seated, the council can begin passing legislation, of which three distinct types exist. The first is a bill, which, when passed, becomes law in Philadelphia. There are also two types of resolutions: privileged and non-privileged. A privileged resolution is something council intends to do that does not rise to the level of a bill-such as holding a hearing. A non-privileged resolution is similar, although it has no legal authority-such as when council calls on the state or federal government to do something.

When a member introduces a bill, the council president assigns it to a committee for a hearing. Typically, hearings allow experts to provide testimony for or against a bill and for the public to comment. If the committee favorably recommends the bill out of committee, it then comes back to city council for two votes. The first is a simple voice vote; the second is a roll-call vote. If the bill receives nine votes, it passes.

Once passed, the bill goes to the mayor, who has several options. If the mayor signs the bill, it becomes law. If the mayor does nothing, the bill becomes law after ten days. The mayor can also veto a bill. If vetoed, the council can override the veto with 12 votes. One exception to this is the end of a four-year session. Suppose the council passes a bill in late December, and the mayor does not sign it. In that case, it is effectively vetoed because all pending legislation is removed from the calendar and must be resubmitted.

Legistar is the digital repository of city council legislation. Here, you can search for legislation, see the council calendar, and access transcripts of hearings. It’s relatively user-friendly, so finding the information you seek should be reasonably straightforward.

Here is a typical council agenda:

Invocation (A spiritual leader is invited to offer an opening prayer)

Approval of the journal of the preceding meeting. (Approving that the actions recorded from the previous meeting are correct for posterity)

Requests by Councilmembers for permission to be absent from the session.

Reading of communications from the Mayor. (This is usually a message about legislation. The mayor will relay to council is he signed, did not sign, or vetoed bills.)

Introduction of bills and resolutions (to be referred to appropriate Committees of Council).

Reports from Committees of Council. (Committees report on bills that were approved.)

Special business. (This usually only occurs when council invites the mayor to speak or they are overriding a veto)

Bills on first reading

Public comment on bills and resolutions on the Second Reading and Final Passage Calendars (Public comment instructions are below)

Bills that Council passed but that need to be returned by the Mayor for reconsideration.

Consideration of bills and resolutions on the Second Reading and Final Passage Calendars. (The final vote for a bill)

Speeches by Councilmembers

Please note that this is an in-person meeting, and it is open to the public. This meeting may also be viewed on Xfinity Channel 64, Fios Channel 40 or

Public comment will be received in-person regarding those matters printed on the agenda on the following pages. Speakers interested in participating in public comment at this meeting may call 215-686-3406 by no later than 3 p.m. the day before the meeting and they must submit the following information:

• Full name (including proper pronunciation and spelling)
• Identify the bill number or resolution number that will be addressed
• State whether you support or oppose that particular bill or resolution
• Telephone number where you can be reached

Speakers may also sign-up to participate in public comment on the day of the meeting in Room 400, City Hall. Speakers who submitted the above information within the required time frame will be added to the list. Speakers will have up to three minutes to speak; the Council President, however, reserves the right based on circumstances to establish a different time limit. The Council President may also limit testimony where repetitious comments are offered on an agenda item.

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