Know Your Government

Along with valid signatures, and ethics paperwork, it might be time to require a working knowledge of civics and government for those running for political office.

By the time you read this, I’ll have done my first stint as a panelist for one of the many Philadelphia Mayoral Campaign forums that will be taking place between now and the May 16 primary.

On Thursday night, a group that included the Philadelphia NAACP, String Theory Schools, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and MJR Strategies LLC held a forum dedicated to education, technology, and innovation. I was asked to participate because the Philadelphia Sunday Sun, one of the many news organizations I work for when I’m not here on Hall Monitor, was a sponsor.

In exchange for being a good girl and not bringing up just how on point the “Abbott Elementary” charter school episode was, I got to ask questions of the candidates about what public education would look like should they become Mayor.

My first question: Explain the relationship between the School District and the City’s municipal government.

Now, you’re probably wondering why that would be the first question one would ask in a debate about education. Well, I believe that if you’re going to involve yourself in something like government, you should know how it works.

Unfortunately, this mayor’s race has exposed the fact that many people, including some who have already been involved in government, have no idea. And because of this, they’re out there on the campaign trail making promises that the City Charter, the constitution of the Commonwealth, and in some cases, the U.S. Constitution itself preclude them from being able to fulfill.

So, because of this, I propose that in addition to all the stuff regarding electoral politics like making sure that a candidate’s petitions are solid, and that they’re running an ethical campaign from a finance standpoint, that there be a requirement that the candidate know how government actually works.

I don’t know what form that requirement would take off the top of my head. It could be a civics test. It could be a recommendation from your Social Studies or college history teacher. But we need something to make sure that folks know what you can and cannot do as a public official.

And while we’re at it, we might want to require political reporters covering these races to
fulfill the civics requirement as well. I’ll touch on that a little later.

I’m bringing this up because I’m more than a little tired of having to explain the separation of powers to people who ought to know better.

For example, despite what the folks one the campaign trail might tell you, there’s nothing that the Mayor’s office can do regarding the schools despite contributing money and putting people on the school board.

That’s because the School District of Philadelphia and the Mayor’s office are two separate, independent entities. Most of the School District’s financing comes from a combination of local taxes (the School District gets most of the property taxes collected by the City) and allocations from the Commonwealth. While City Council has kicked in much more money than it has in the past, that extra money doesn’t give it control.

Another thing that people have been promising on the campaign trail is to reign in District Attorney Larry Krasner.

Let’s keep it real. Sheriff, District Attorney, Controller and Register of Wills are independent row offices, meaning that except for possibly making an endorsement or monkeying around with their budgets, there’s little that the mayor can do to them. Under the City Charter, the persons elected to these offices can run them as they see fit. So, despite what Fox-29’s Steve Keeley would like you to believe, you can’t click your heels together and wish that Krasner would suddenly disappear.

Also, according to the Commonwealth’s constitution, all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties are required to have a sheriff. That includes Philadelphia, which has the distinction of being the only city in the Commonwealth that is also a county. In addition to doing sheriff’s sales, the sheriff’s department also handles security for the city’s courts because the police, who often testify in court, can’t.

Now, I know that the folks at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the area’s biggest newspaper, know this. If they didn’t, I could excuse the fact that every time I turn around, they’re calling for the sheriff’s office to be abolished. I could excuse the fact that they barely touch on the fact that for this to happen, it would require a referendum to change the Commonwealth’s constitution.

But alas, I cannot. When a group of freelance journalists with a news program on public access television financed by a combination of small advertisers, a Lenfest grant, and an inheritance can understand this concept, we should be able to expect at least that much from political reporters that don’t have to rely on their spouses for health insurance.

(Thank you, Bowie State University!)

There’s a difference between demanding accountability from places like the school district, the district attorney’s office, and the sheriff’s office and acting like you can somehow force your will on these entities as a public official. If you’re the mayor, you can demand that the school district give you some answers for why it didn’t take care of an asbestos problem that could have been solved during the COVID lockdown. You can talk to the district attorney about ways to solve the city’s gun violence problem, something that’s not going on now. You can find out what possessed the sheriff to spend more than $6,000 in taxpayer funds on crab fries with no crab on them at Chickie’s and Pete’s.

But contrary to what folks are allowing you to say on the campaign trail, you can’t kick School District Superintendent Tony Wadlington, DA Larry Krasner, or Sheriff Rochelle Bilal to the curb the minute you take the oath of office as Mayor.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a civics requirement to draft…and a migraine to get rid of.

Our reporters sit through hours of city council meetings, dig through piles of documents, and ask tough questions other media overlook. Because we’re committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty crisis — and challenging those who sustain it. If you think this work is important too, please support our journalism.

We’re counting on readers like you.


We monitor Philly's local halls of power to bring you the news you need to know.

City Council News No One Else Is Covering. 

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.