The Democracy Agenda for Philadelphia outlines the actions needed by our next mayor and City Council to ensure a more representative and ethical city government—a more democratic city government responsive to voters, that protects the public interest, and that engages communities on key decisions shaping their future.
American democracy began in Philadelphia, but nearly 250 years later we find ourselves at a critical juncture. In Harrisburg and across the Commonwealth, election integrity has become a political flashpoint, with falsehoods spread on air and online damaging trust in elections and the officials who run them. And across Philadelphia, the day-to-day strain and quality-of-life problems that have long been endured in some of our communities worsened during the pandemic, leaving many residents struggling to stay housed, healthy and safe. It is imperative that City Hall reinvigorate itself to meet this moment.
This Democracy Agenda outlines the actions needed by our next mayor and City Council to ensure a more representative and ethical city government—a more democratic city government that is responsive to voters, protects the public interest, and engages communities on key decisions shaping their future. There are no silver bullets, no cure-alls. But taken together, these steps would better position our local government to deliver the services, support and opportunities so urgently needed.
Since 1904, the Committee of Seventy has worked to protect and improve the voting process, ensure integrity in government, and engage citizens in the critical affairs of the day. We look forward to engaging with city residents and partners to continue building the democracy that Philadelphians deserve.
The Chief Integrity Officer is a critical position adjacent to the Mayor and dedicated to promoting ethical behavior across a city government with more than 25,000 employees. Although their scope is limited to the agencies and personnel in the executive branch, this chief ethics official has played a critical role since being created in the aftermath of City Hall scandals in the early 2000’s.
The next Mayor must retain this office and reissue the various executive orders dictating rules around accepting gifts, outside employment, nepotism, whistleblower protections, sexual harassment and discrimination.
The Philadelphia Ethics Board is responsible for administering a wide variety of public-integrity laws covering campaign finance, financial and lobbying disclosure, conflicts of interest, gifts and political activity. Despite its central importance in safeguarding the public interest, the Ethics Board has endured flat funding for more than a decade as its regulatory duties expanded and became increasingly sophisticated to limit the influence of money and special interests in local politics.
The Mayor and City Council should boost annual ethics funding to at least $1.5 million, which will provide for the needed staff and technical capacity to thoroughly train thousands of city personnel and enforce our integrity laws.
City Council members receive a steady stream of political donations from individuals and businesses in the real estate and building industry due to the members’ powerful influence over public land sales and zoning. By one estimate, the industry accounted for more than $3 million to Council members and candidates between 2015 and 2019, bolstering incumbents’ war chests to fend off challengers and creating ethical risks. Six council members have been convicted for actions related to their land-use power since 1981.
City Council should limit campaign contributions to city officials and candidates from individuals and businesses with matters before the City, including land sales and zoning legislation. This will mitigate both the real and perceived ethical risks in these relationships, as well as the flow of political donations incentivized solely because of Council’s land-use power.
City Council’s traditional deference to a district member for any local matter has expanded dramatically in recent years to include block-by-block and district-specific regulation of sidewalk vendors and cafes, newsstands and news racks, streeteries, food trucks, and other similar issues. Using the legislative process for such hyperlocal matters creates inconsistencies in policy across the city and an uneven playing field for residents and businesses with varying degrees of access to a council member.
Philadelphia City Council should curtail its habit of legislating sidewalk activity to preserve the time and attention of its members and staff for housing, gun violence, public health and other critical issues that span not only their districts but the city at large.
The current Office of the Inspector General has a proven record of attacking instances of fraud, corruption, and misconduct in city government, saving the taxpayers approximately $8.6 million in 2021. The Inspector General’s investigative authority, however, is limited only to officials and agencies under the mayor and in the executive branch.
City Council should send a question to the ballot asking voters whether the Inspector General should be enshrined in the Home Rule Charter with jurisdiction extending over the rest of the city government including Council, the City Commissioners, Sheriff, District Attorney and City Controller.
Philadelphia’s law targeting conflicts of interest and outside jobs is difficult to interpret, challenging to enforce, and far to narrow. The current rules, written 70 years ago, are intended to prevent the private interest of an individual or company from compromising the decisions of a public official. Failure to date of reforming is unfinished business from the conviction of Councilmember Bobby Henon and Local 98 business manager John Dougherty.
City Council should strengthen this law by clarifying the circumstances under which a conflict of interest arises for a public official and how to disclose it. Officials with second jobs must also be prohibited from acting on behalf of their outside employer when they should be serving the City of Philadelphia.
City Council’s expanded influence over land use has resulted increasingly in the creation of a patchwork of rules that vary from district to district, compromising sound urban planning and Philadelphia’s opportunity to strategically guide development in ways that can benefit all residents. Decisions that shape a growing city will have lasting impacts.
The next Mayor must have an overarching vision for inclusive growth while backing the City Planning Commission and its Philadelphia 2035 plan. Doubling the staff capacity of the planning agency will allow for the robust community engagement needed to inform planning goals and decisions on a continuous basis. District council members will continue to provide voice for constituents, but the Mayor must be prepared to elevate the recommendations of city planners and veto legislation that fails to align with sound and equitable planning practices.
No organization can maximize its impact without measuring outcomes. Especially from City Hall, best practices in performance management can have a direct impact on residents’ quality of life. From gun violence to street maintenance to behavioral health, data should be tracked and results analyzed to shape the strategies and programming that can make a difference in our communities. While city agencies track and act upon data to varying degrees, there is no comprehensive strategy across a government with a nearly $6 billion budget and tens of thousands of employees.
The next Mayor and their team must commit the resources and attention needed to realize the benefits of data-informed decision making citywide. A new Center for Excellence in Performance Management under the Chief Administrative Officer can engage in the collaboration across agencies necessary to drive effective and equitable city services.
The City’s ability to attract and retain personnel has been a longstanding challenge but became dramatically more difficult through the pandemic and afterward. Acute shortages of personnel in the Police Department and prison system, in particular, have had grave consequences, but workforce problems are pervasive across city government.
The next mayor must have a plan for modernizing the civil service system to make the city a competitive employer and to build a highly-qualified workforce reflective of the city. This will require new investments in recruitment and marketing, streamlining the hiring process, revamping the salary scale, and building training pipelines through the Community College of Philadelphia and other local career-building institutions.
In the past 70 years, 17 City Council members have served into or past their fifth terms, with the longest-serving members in office for upwards of 40 years. This is due, in no small part, to the substantial advantages that accrue to incumbents in fundraising, political connections and public profile, as well as Pennsylvania’s first-past-the-post election system that allows winners with less than a majority vote. Term limits can help guarantee a minimal degree of turnover and ensure a steady infusion of new perspectives, ideas and energy from new members.
City Council should send a question to the ballot asking voters whether term limits should be enacted allowing up to 12-16 years of service. Such limits would bring Philadelphia in line with other major cities and provide ample time for lawmakers to tackle challenging, long-term projects while ensuring that competitive elections for open seats take place with some regularity.
The 1950s-era requirement that City elected officials resign their current office before running for another one was instituted to prevent incumbents from marshaling their office staff and materials for their campaign. This original concern is no longer worth the cost of compelling elected officials to vacate their current post before seeking another one. With every vacancy created, voters are deprived of representation until a special election is held, if one is held at all before the next regular election. Even if a special election is held promptly, local party leaders choose the nominees, essentially granting a handful of partisans the power to handpick the next officeholder.
The Home Rule Charter should be amended to allow city elected officials the option to serve the remainder of a final term while seeking another office. This change also has the potential to spur further electoral competition by encouraging city officials to run for higher office and leveling the playing field for those who cannot easily forgo months of income.
Pennsylvania elections have changed dramatically in recent years, allowing millions of voters statewide to enjoy the convenience of voting by mail. But limited resources, burdensome legal requirements, and unfounded charges of election fraud have put an enormous strain on local election offices, including Philadelphia.
Philadelphia must continue to invest in and modernize election operations to ensure every voter has an opportunity to cast a ballot in a safe and secure election. This will continue to require regular annual funding sufficient to send, receive and process mail ballots, staff hundreds of polling places, and procure equipment and materials needed for the increasingly complex task of running in-person and mail-in elections.
The COVID-19 pandemic spanning the 2020 election and Census count created unprecedented challenges in engaging city residents in vital civic duties and amplified the importance of robust voter participation. While the City Commissioners oversee election administration, there is no single official under the Mayor who is chiefly responsible for leveraging the resources of the executive branch to address barriers to voters, maximize turnout, and serve as a high-level liaison to the Commissioners Office.
The next Mayor should create via executive order a new Chief Democracy Officer tasked with leading a citywide voter engagement initiative and coordinating with the City Commissioners Office on critical election operations. In addition to nonpartisan voter education, this official would be responsible for overseeing the city’s efforts to ensure every resident is counted during the Census.
Every 10 years after the Census, City Council has the power to redraw its own 10 districts with hardly any rules or safeguards outside the regular legislative process. This means members can negotiate the shapes of their districts—and which voters they represent—behind closed doors. Past maps have diluted the voting power of certain communities to advantage politicians, a risk that will continue without permanent reform.
The Home Rule Charter should be amended to put city residents in charge of redrawing the City Council districts that determine their representation in City Hall. A redistricting commission led by residents and independent of City Council should have the power to collect public input and develop a mapping plan drawn to consider communities of interest, including neighborhoods, and racial and language groups.