Philadelphia’s City Council will meet today to consider one of its most
important matters in its agenda over the next four years: its own rules.
If you go to Room 400 in City Hall at 10 a.m., you will get a glimpse of
how these rules play out in real life. They set out everything from how
bills make their way through Council to who gets to appoint committee
chairs to the actual words the Council President must utter before
certain actions take place. The rules Council also talk about how and
when the public gets to have a say in what happens in Council.
Will Council members truly listen? Some say “not really” – especially
since their next election isn’t until 2015. But this new Council with
six freshman legislators could surprise us.
You can make a difference by keeping up on what’s happening in Council.
And to actually participate whenever you can in the business of Council –
which is really your business.
This edition of HOW PHILLY WORKS is all about keeping on top of Council’s activities and getting your voice heard.
- January 26, 2012
Thanks for the heads-up. What’s happening in Council today?
The only item on Council’s agenda is consideration of its new rules. You can read the rules at: http://legislation.phila.gov/attachments/12542.pdf
I don’t have time to read them now. Tell me what I need to know?
For starters, all meetings involving Council’s 17 members are open to the public. They happen every Thursday in Room 400 beginning at 10 a.m. unless Council is on break. Here is the schedule of meetings for 2012.
Can I talk at those meetings?
Sometimes. The rules that will be considered today say that residents and taxpayers can talk about any bill that Council could vote on during the meeting. But you can’t talk about another Council bill that can’t be voted on that day or about any old issue that happens to be on your mind.
How long can I talk?
For three minutes. To make sure you are on Council’s list of speakers, you should call the office of Council’s Chief Clerk at 215-686-3410 (or 3411).
Can’t I just sign up to speak when I get to Room 400?
Yes, but the people who call in advance will be ahead of you on the list. You can also decide to talk at the last minute without signing up. When everyone on the list has spoken, the Council President will ask if anyone else wants to make a comment.
Three minutes isn’t very long.
No, it isn’t. The best advice we can give is to go directly to your most convincing argument (either opposing or supporting a bill Council could vote on) and to do it within the first minute. If you ramble, you’ll lose your audience.
Does Council vote before or after they hear from the public?
After. There would be little point in allowing public comment if the voting took place before Council members heard what the public had to say.
Does Council genuinely listen to the comments?
It doesn’t happen too often, but we have seen bills not get voted on after a public comment period.
Can Council decide they don’t want to hear comments from the public?
The rules give the Council President the power to defer the public comment period on a bill until Council’s next scheduled session if he or she feels there isn’t enough time. But then Council can’t take any action on the bill that day. The members can’t stall indefinitely if they want to pass a bill.
What if 100 people say the same thing during the public comment session?
That’s an interesting story. Unlike the rules introduced today, the rules of Council adopted when the last four-year session started in 2008 had no section dealing with a public comment period. The public comment rules were issued by former Council President Verna only after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court forced Council to add them in 2010.
What does that have to do with 100 people saying the same thing?
We’re getting there. Verna’s rules said that the President can “limit repetitious comments in order to enable Council to conduct its meeting.” The rules being considered today (Section XVI for those of you who are reading them) extend this by allowing the President to place “additional reasonable limitations” (including changing the three-minute rule) on public comments “to permit Council to conduct its meetings and to maintain order, including repetitious comments.”
Council doesn’t only meet on Thursdays. Can I comment any other time?
After a bill is introduced, the Council President sends it to one of Council’s 23 committees that handles specific topic addressed in the bill. (You can learn about each Committee by going to http://www.phila.gov/citycouncil/StandingCommittees.html
.) The public is allowed to talk (or testify) if the Committee decides to hold a public hearing on a bill. There is no three-minute rule in Committee hearings.
How do I find out about a Committee’s public hearings?
Notices of all public hearings in a Committee of Council must be advertised at least five days before the hearing (or 15 days for certain zoning changes) in the three city newspapers with the highest paid circulation. (That would be the Inquirer, Daily News and Northeast Times.) Council also posts a meeting calendar on its website at www.phila.gov/calendar/
. And every Friday, Seventy will post alerts about important happenings in Council the following week on its website: www.seventy.org
And if I miss a Committee hearing?
Remember that you have a three-minute second chance to talk during the public comment period on the day the bill you are interested in could be voted on by all 17 Council members.
Can’t I just call a Council member’s office to talk about an issue?
You can. If you aren’t sure who represents you in Council, check Seventy’s online Citizen’s Guide at http://guide.seventy.org/. You can also call one of Council’s seven At-Large members who represent all city voters. You can find their contact information at here
Getting back to today. I can’t get to City Hall. Can I at least watch what’s going on?
Yes, Council meetings are aired live on Channel 64, which is the city’s government access channel. Or, if you have a computer or can get to one, you can hear the action at http://www.phila.gov/channel64/
How will I know who’s who?
If you’re watching on TV, you can figure out who the members of Council are by looking at this seating chart
. If you’re listening on the radio, the President will call on a Council member by name if he or she wants to speak.
Does Council ever meet outside of City Hall?
Not usually. But, during last year’s campaign, a number of Council members told Seventy they wanted to have more meetings in neighborhoods around the city and during some evening hours so more people can attend. We’ll let you know when that’s happening.
How can I learn more about City Council?
When they were running for office last year, many Council members sent Seventy profiles about themselves and their ideas for improving the city. You can read the ones we got here
. And we’ll be telling you more about Council in other installments of HOW PHILLY WORKS
If you know others who want to follow what’s happening in City Council (or elsewhere in city or state government), ask them to join our e-mail list by clicking here.
And, as always, if you want to give us your feedback on this HOW PHILLY WORKS or recommend other topics for us to tackle, please e-mail us at email@example.com.