Let's stipulate to the following: Last night's Board of Health meeting, at which the Board intended to vote on a new rule regulating various aspects of "outdoor feeding" in the city, was interrupted repeatedly by protesters (many if not most associated with Occupy Philly). The disrupters were asked repeatedly to quiet down, and didn't.
The Board members eventually called a recess and then resumed in another room, to which the general public was not allowed access — though reporters were, including a member of Occupy Philly, who was allowed to videotape the proceedings. Audio from the meeting was piped, live, into the original meeting room, allowing the public to listen to the proceedings as they happened.
Here's the question: does that still make the meeting "public" under state law?
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act broadly states that meetings of most "public" bodies — the Board of Health would almost certainly qualify — must be "public," meaning that citizens should have the right to see what's happening and express themselves. Generally, a quorum of a body may not conduct business behind closed doors.
Occupy Philly didn't exactly invent the disturbance of meetings: it happens all the time, including at many or most City Council meetings. Usually, disturbers are asked to settle down. On the (fairly rare) occasions that they don't, they are often escorted out by a Sergent At Arms or the city's Civil Affairs Unit officers. On some rare occasions, they are arrested.
But this is the first time we've known the public body — the Board of Health in this case — to opt to remove themselves, rather than the disrupters.
And there is, after all, a difference: public officials obviously didn't want to mass-remove the many disrupters — but had they started to do so, is it possible that other members of the public would have allowed the meeting to take place and thus had the opportunity to watch it in-person and make their opinions known? The purpose of this meeting wasn't to take public testimony — but by attending, members of the public have the ability to express themselves, even just by being present for reporters to see.
Even Mayor spokesman Mark McDonald referred to a "segment of the audience that was bent on disruption." So what about the other segment?
McDonald and Department of Health Communications director Jeff Moran both told CP last night and today that the city's law department assured the Board that they were well within the bounds of the Sunshine Act.
"The Sunshine Act allows an entire meeting to be conducted by speakerphone, with members in various remote locations, so long as the public is given access to hear what's going on," McDonald wrote in an email. "Last night's meeting far exceeded those standards, in that the press and videographers were allowed in to observe, while the remaining public was allowed to hear."
I ran this by Darrell Zaslow, an attorney whose passion for government transparency led him to pursue a multi-year (and eventually victorious) legal crusade to force City Council to hear public testimony in Council sessions (no they didn't used to).
He agreed: "If the public makes their participation or observation impossible by their own misconduct, it would seem to me that [The Board] did their best under difficult circumstances to comply," he said.
"They probably would be found by a court to have acted to the best of their ability under the circumstances."
Councilman Bill Green skeptical of "AVI transition fairy," Councilman Mark Squilla spinning yarns about shallow water, as opposition to mayor's property plans takes shape.
The public should question the existence of an "AVI transition fairy."
The public should "not to jump in the water until you know how deep it is."
Such is the folksy wisdom coming from City Council today, as opposition to the mayor's property plans takes shape.
The first tidbit came from a post-Council conversation with At-Large Councilman Bill Green, who frequently tends to set himself up in counterpoint to the mayor's proposals and has not failed to do so when it comes to the administration's plans for a move to an "Actual Value Initiative" (AVI) property reassessment program. Green supports AVI, but calls the mayor's plan to bring in $90 million extra from property taxes as a result of instituting it a "backdoor tax increase" — which Green believes deserves its own discussion.
The cautionary lesson about jumping into murky water came from First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who says that moving to Actual Value Initiative would be "irresponsible" because of a lack of available data on new assessments and uncertainty over legilsation in the state House that would enable an exemption for some owner-occupied residences.
Both indicate that opposition to the mayor's proposed budget is already taking definite shape in Council.
There are a few points of contention over the proposed property tax reforms and budgeting. Briefly:
— $90 million in increased revenue: The city, citing a study it commissioned, says it anticipates that the ongoing property reassessment will end up showing that housing values rose, overall, by about 25%, or $90 million. The mayor wants to dedicate that money to the ailing Philadelphia School District. The city characterizes this not as a tax hike, but as, essentially, the city's collecting money it should have been collecting all along, but for a broken property tax assessment system.
But critics like Councilman Green contend that that's a backhanded way of simply imposing a property tax hike. There is, he says, no reason to believe in an "AVI transition fairy" that will deliver $90 million extra to the city. And even if the fairy delivers, there's no reason Council should automatically allow that money to be appropriated and spent.
"Should we spend it, or should we lower [the property tax]?" Green asked CP. "[The mayor] doesn't want to call it what it is: a tax increase."
— Homestead exemption: The mayor and Council want to give a break to certain owner-occupied residences. To do that, they need enabling legislation to be passed in Harrisburg, where nothing is ever certain — and, indeed, Councilman Squilla says he was told by members of the Philadelphia delegation that the current bill's prospects are bleak. What's more, complete property reassessment data won't likely be available until after Council would have to approve this plan.
"I believe my district may be hit the hardest by this," Squilla told CP over the phone, "and my fear is that if we rush into it we may not do it correctly."
Squilla says he's working to build a coalition among Council members who share his concern.
— To implement or not to implement: For all the nervousness within Council over implementing the various components of a transition to AVI, the question is less whether than when: the administration wants to make the transition in more or less one stroke; but Council could decide to delay implementation until after data is available.
There's a new campaign finance watchdog in town and politicos, good government folks, data junkies and journalists might want to bookmark this one.
David Lynn, database programmer and former author of a column on campaign finance for the Public Record, has launched his own website, freepoliticalspeech.com, and intends to turn it into a new source of unreported — and, we're betting, often intriguing — details of how and where money is spent in local politics — "to use publicly available data and explain its meaning to the public in plain language."
Lynn knows the data well: he created free software to help candidates maintain and properly file their campaign finance reports to the state; and his column in the Public Record demonstrated both an unusual appetite for the kind of details virtually no one in this city has time or mandate to uncover, and also an ability to turn those details into news: Lynn's reporting on financial irregularities within Stephanie Singer's campaign for City Commissioner preceded the city's Board of Ethics announcing settlement agreements with her campaign for violations of city finance rules.
Even potential allies on Nutter's homeless food policies are wary, and say support is conditional on progress.
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The 45 minutes the Nutter administration gave reporters to hurry to a City Hall press conference yesterday, in which the mayor announced a proposed citywide regulation banning the outdoor distribution of meals in city parks, wasn't the only thing about it that seemed rushed.
There was the fact that the ordinance would go into effect in just 29 days — timing that happens to coincide almost perfectly with the grand opening of the Barnes Foundation museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where church groups and other volunteer groups like Food Not Bombs have distributed meals for over a decade.
There was the fact that the announcement came just a day before tonight's Board of Health hearing on a separate rule that would require those who distribute free food to meet certain food safety regulations and obtain permits from the city.
There was the fact that while the mayor announced that he had "created a working group of external stakeholders" to come up with a better solution for meals for the homeless, CP found that no such group actually exists yet — and at least two major providers of meals to the homeless in the city say that had no warning of the mayor's announcement, let alone input into it.
And then there's the fact that even those homeless advocates who might support the mayor in this are expressing deep reservations — and warning that their support is contingent on the city's doing much more than the mayor has so far proposed.
Take Sister Mary Scullion, for example — who appeared alongside the mayor at yesterday's announcement. This morning's Inquirer reports that Scullion "backed the proposal but would monitor it carefully."
That's accurate, but in a conversation with CP yesterday, Scullion also stressed the her support is conditional. Scullion does see this proposal as an "opportunity," — but an opportunity to do significantly more than Philly as a city has done so far. What's more, Scullion has refused to be a part of the mayor's working group, partly because she wants to able to criticize it if its recommendations aren't up to snuff.
"The mayor can use this as an opportunity to move the ball forward and provide additional resources and opportunities for people who are homeless and hungry in our city," Scullion told CP yesterday.
"If it doesn't come through, we'll have to take more dramatic and more visible ways of saying this is a sham. I honestly don't today believe that's the case. But we'll see."
As for the timing of this announcement, Scullion added: "Of course it's totally related to the Barnes."
In discussing the mayor's announcement with CP, the mayor's press office also mentioned Minister Bill Golderer of Broad Street Ministries, who has been critical of outside meals as lacking dignity and nutrition that people deserve. His church recently spend nearly half a million dollars on an industrial kitchen facility to prepare indoor meals for the homeless. They hope to expand from two to nine meals a week.
But Golderer — just the sort of "external stakeholder" the mayor would presumably want on board — had been caught by surprise himself by the mayor's announcement, and says he supports the mayor's plan only if it is just that: a plan for better services for the homeless:
"If we're saying yes, we're going to do nutrition with dignity inside, I will lead that charge with others — but we have to commit to that. Banning one thing without a resource alternative is not an answer," he told CP this morning. "Getting tough on homelessness is not my position at all and I hope the mayor and others don't get any bonus points for cracking down or getting tough - because I'm afraid that some people are like, 'Finally, I don't have to look at that anymore and that's not he goal."
"The goal is really authentically to build a comprehensive integrated system to deal with hunger and homelessness sand utter disenfranchisement."
In other words, any support from these folks for the mayor's regulation is dependent upon a plan for real long-term change. And so far, the mayor hasn't mentioned any such plan: he did announce that meal providers will be allowed to distribute meals on City Hall's apron for one year; but he has so far committed to no funding, offered no indoor facilities, or articulated a vision for how the city will ensure that something better is going to replace a volunteer service many people clearly rely on.
Meanwhille, services for the homeless in general have been declining for years. The city has cut funding for case managment in shelters; several private meal programs have gone belly-up; and cuts in the state budget could mean a drastic cut to the city's already-threadbare shelter system.
Advocates like Golderer and Scullion hope that the city is ready to "step up" on these fronts — but they also appear prepared to fight back if he doesn't.
Meanwhile, the city's Board of Health will hold a hearing on its proposed regulation on outdoor food distribution at 5:30 tonight, Room 1450 of the Municipal Services Building. Various groups plan a pre-hearing food sharing and rally on the Parkway at 4:00.
The Mayor has "created a working group of external stakeholders" on homeless feeding issues; it just doesn't have any external stakeholders in it yet.
As we posted earlier, Mayor Nutter today announced a new regulation that would ban "outdoor feeding" — a phrase which refers to the free meals given out to the homeless and hungry — in all city parks in Philadelphia. The mayor says food distribution will be allowed on City Hall's apron by permitted groups for the next year.
A press release from the mayor's press office also said that "the Mayor created a working group of external stakeholders and senior Administration staff" to come up with a plan to help those who eat outdoors move inside over the next 90 days.
But (as we noted earlier) at least some food distributors feel left out: Brian Jenkins, president of Chosen 300 ministries, which runs meal programs six days a week and continues one of the largest private meal programs, says he was never contacted by the administration or invited to be part of any working group.
It turns out that he's not the only "external stakeholder" who's not part of the working group: in fact, no one else is either so far. Asked about the composition of the working group the mayor had "created," mayor spokesman Mark McDonald told Hall Monitor in an email that:
"We've created the group but have not assigned outside stakeholder members to it yet."
Two words stand out in that sentence: "assigned," a word which contrasts with its softer counterpart "invited," — and "yet," which means that the mayor announced this proposed regulation well ahead of forming the group tasked with engaging the parties most affected by it.
Project Home's Sister Mary Scullion appeared alongside the mayor at his press conference today. She says that it was "a risk" to appear with the mayor for the announcement, but that "this is an opportunity to move the ball forward" on hunger.
She says she's looking forward to the formation of the mayor's working group but that she won't be on it: "I'm going to form my own group to evaluate, 'Did people really come through?'"
McDonald did mention two administration members that will be part of the group: Health Commissioner Donald Schwartz and Parks & Rec Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis. It's within Schwartz's office that a proposed regulation by the Board of Health would impose new food safety restrictions on outdoor meals; it's within DiBerardinis' office that the mayor's new proposed regulation on any feeding in parks would go into effect.
This morning, Mayor Nutter announced a "regulation" imposing a citywide ban on outdoor "feeding" (it's not his term, but it does give Hall Monitor the willies; you might prefer the less zoo-like phrase "food sharing" or "food distribution") in Philadelphia city parks.
The ban will go into effect in 30 days and will not affect family picnics or permitted events.
Nutter also announced a "temporary food distribution" location at City Hall, where port-o-potties and water will be provided; "outdoor feeders" (yech!) will be required to sign up and reserve days to serve food there.
This comes while the city's Board of Health is still considering a regulation that would have required "outdoor feeders" (yech!) — most of whom are volunteers from churches, individuals, or members of Philly Food Not Bombs to meet certain food safety standards. That bill, ostensibly less stringent since it didn't ban the practice outright, has been hotly opposed by several groups.
That bill has formed part of a backdrop of what many homeless advocates see as the city's gradually trying to reduce the homeless presence on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and near City Hall. As construction of the new Barnes Foundation museum has been underway on the Parkway, several homeless individuals with whom CP spoke said not long ago who were sleeping nearby said that they felt they were being pushed gradually away. In the mayor's budget address last week, he announced a plan for a major renovation of Love Park — probably the last major gathering place of the homeless since Dilworth Plaza went under construction.
Among those opposed to the new proposed regulation is Brian Jenkins, president of Chosen 300 Ministries, a network of 73 churches around the region and internationally. Chosen 300 serves meals to homeless individuals 6 days a week in three locations around Philadelphia (only one of those is outdoors). Jenkins believes it's the single largest private meal program in Philadelphia.
Jenkins says that his coalition is "definitely opposed" to the proposed regulation, and questions the administration's motive in establishing regulations that so clearly affect the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which the administration hopes to see revitalized as a tourist attraction.
Jenkins calls the mayor's push to end outdoor food distribution in parks a civil rights issue."
Jenkins also says the administration hasn't reached to work with those who engage in the food distribution. While the mayor announced today that he has created a "working group of external stakeholders," Jenkins says that he, for one, was never contacted.
"The amazing part is that I haven't been invited — and I have the largest feeding organization in the city of Philadelphia."
A few weeks ago, the city’s Board of Ethics announced several settlement agreements over campaign finance violations by various candidates for office last year, among them City Commissioner Stephanie Singer, who acknowledged several violations of the city’s campaign finance code (Singer had, in fact, reported the violations herself when she later became aware of them).
Also named in the settlement agreement was Ellen Chapman, Singer’s campaign treasurer — who, CP discovered this week, has since been appointed a deputy commissioner in Singer's office.
Among the violations in the most recent settlement: collecting contributions in excess of the city’s limit from Singer’s brother David; accepting, on the eve of the primary, excess contributions from one Liz Kaplan in the name of her husband and son but drawn on her own checking account; and failing to disclose those contributions in the 24-hour reporting period required two weeks before an election. The settlement certainly paints a picture of messy campaign finance records; at worst, it could imply defiance of campaign rules on the eve of a competitive election.
But it also provides a off-color backdrop for Singer’s decision to appoint Chapman to the Deputy Commissioner role. The recently settled case wasn’t the first time the Singer campaign made errors: Singer signed another ethics violation settlement agreement last year, acknowledging making tens of thousands of dollars in expenditures on campaign materials from Singer’s private credit card rather than from the campaign committee's account.; and last July, Public Record columnist David Lynn, whose campaign finance columns are nothing if not meticulous, found various inconsistencies and errors in Singer’s campaign records, stating that “her filings are in disarray.”
Effectively, Chapman is taking one of the positions once occupied by former City Commissioner Rene Tartaglione, daughter of long-time City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione, whom Singer ousted in May. (Rene Tartaglione was found to have engaged in ethics violations as well, by engaging in political activities while working as a civil servant overseeing elections).
Singer, who, along with fellow insurgent City Commissioner Al Schmidt, recently passed rules severely ending patronage among city election workers, told CP on Wednesday, “It’s illegal to reward political support with city funds … and I haven’t done that.” Chapman, Singer argues, is “reliable, smart, and trustworthy and … understands how processes within an organization will affect how that organization performs.”
Singer also hired former Second District City Council candidate and ousted committeewoman Tracey Gordon as a deputy commissioner (Singer had been a vocal supporter of Gordon in her fight against the city’s Democratic party to retain her committeeperson post), as well as Dennis Lee, who managed her campaign.
I should emphasize here: There’s nothing unusual about elected officials hiring on people who worked on their campaigns — from the President of the United States on down to City Council members, it’s a common practice. Reformist candidate and insurgent Republican Al Schmidt, who won a seat as City Commissioner in November, acknowledges hiring two of his campaign staffers as deputy commissioners, saying it only makes sense to hire individuals that “share my work ethic and share my ideas.”
Schmidt adds that deputy commissioners are civil servants and therefore barred from various political activities, including assisting with his campaign. “My best professional gain is my political loss,” he told CP. Schmidt and Singer both draw a distinction between the kind of nepotism and cronyism they swore to overturn and the appointment of high-level staffers who share their values.
Zack Stalberg of the good government watchdog Committee of Seventy agrees.
“Practically speaking, this is one reason people get involved in campaigns, for the opportunity to work in government down the road. That’s a legitimate motive, and the campaign is a great place [for the candidate] to find out whether an individual is good or not,” says Stalberg. “The real issue is whether they hire quality people."
Fair enough, says this Hall Monitor: Hopefully the quality of work Singer's staff performs in the City Commission is a little tidier than than it was on the campaign trail.
Yes, Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a resolution honoring Johnny Doc, the guy who funded his election
In Council today, 6th District Councilman Boby Henon introduced a resolution honoring union boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty for his upcoming role as Grand Marshall of the 2012 Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day parade.
Hall Monitor, in fact, tweeted this information earlier and then deleted the tweet, partly because of misplaced glasses and an unfamiliarity with the new voices of City Council, and partly because it all seemed just a tad like one of those strange political dreams HM kept having during the primary.
Dougherty, of course, threw considerable political muscle and money behind Henon's campaign for Council. Henon, of course, worked directly under Doc as the political director of IBEW Local 98, the union of which Doc is business manager and boss.
Having confirmed that it was, in fact, Henon who introduced he bill honoring his boss of a few months back, the tweet has gone back up. We apologize for the confusion.
Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter.
Hall Monitor: Will Councilman James Kenney withstand a challenge to his Soul Train dancing claims? Will Council create a land bank to dispose of vacant properties? These questions and more answered.
Philadelphia’s City Council met for its second session of the new year today. Here’s what you missed.
Probably the most significant legislation introduced today was a bill sponsored by Councilmembers Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Bill Green that would create a “land bank,” — an entity which would theoretically become the main vehicle for vacant land sales in the city. It’s been about a year and counting since the Nutter administration promised to create its own comprehensive vacant land policy; this measure, as well as an idea put forth by Council President Darrell Clarke to create special “Redevelopment Districts,” with discounts on city-owned property, show Council moving forward with reforms on its own.
The session saw the passage of a number of resolutions, including:
— A resolution introduced by Sanchez and Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. stating Council’s opposition to HB2029, a bill circulating Harrisburg that would ban “foreign” forms of law — and clearly mimicking similar “anti-Sharia” bills elsewhere in the United States.
— A resolution, introduced by Council members Jones, Kenyatta Johnson, Sanchez, and Blondell Reynolds Brown, urging the state to reconsider the Corbett administration's proposed “asset test” for individuals to receive Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) aid. Several Council members spoke forcefully against the asset test, including Councilman James Kenney who addressed Harrisburg directly from his desk: “If you don’t want to help us, can you just leave us alone?”
And speaking of Kenney … the At-Large Councilman used his concluding remarks to praise the late Don Cornelius, creator of TV dance show Soul Train, from whom, Kenney said, “I learned how to dance.”
Kenney would soon eat his words: In her motion to adjourn the Council sessions, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown moved that Council adjourn in a line lead by alleged Soul dancer Kenney. When the latter began to balk, Council President Clarke intervened on Reynolds Brown’s behalf:
“The motion,” he said, “has been moved and seconded.”
Kenney was finally able to wriggle out by pointing out he had no music by which to dance.
Hall Monitor’s City Council preview: Land Banks, zero tolerance school policies, neighborhoods keeping taxes for themselves; Harrisburg “anti-Sharia” laws that don’t mention Sharia; and more!
(Feeling Councilmanic? Follow Hall Monitor Isaiah Thompson on Twitter)
Philadelphia City Council’s 2012 session's just gotten rolling, but it’s already looking interesting. Over the next few weeks, Hall Monitor will keep you posted as the issues confronting this year’s Council take shape.
Probably the biggest news for tomorrow is that Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez and Councilman Bill Green plan to introduce a bill, long in the works, that would create a “land bank” — an entity that would hold and be able to distribute vacant land. This bill comes as the city administration’s task force on vacant land distribution still hasn’t produced a proposal for a “front door” system for the private acquisition of vacant land — after about a year and counting since they said they would.
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