How Council Works

The following is a guide to how Philadelphia's City Council operates. It isn't intended to be comprehensive, but it will give an idea of how Council is structured, who leads the 17-member body, and how legislation makes its way through the process.

Contents


1. What is City Council?
2. Who is on City Council?
3. How is City Council structured?
4. What does City Council do?
5. What  are full City Council meetings like?



What is City Council?

The structure of Philadelphia municipal government is laid out in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, which is the city's "constitution." The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter establishes City Council as the legislative branch of government and grants Council certain powers and responsibilities. Council's most significant role is to enact laws and to adopt the city's operating budget. Council also has the authority to decide who sits on various city boards and commissions. As a result, City Council has significant influence in shaping city policies and programs.

City Council is composed of 17 members, each elected every four years. Ten of the 17 members are district representatives, which means they are elected by voters in a specific part of the city called a Council district. Each of Philadelphia’s ten Council districts has about 154,000 residents. The other seven members of Council serve at-large and are elected by city-wide popular vote. To preserve bipartisan representation, no political party can have more than five at-large Council members. This guarantees that at least two of the seven at-large Council seats will be held by members of the minority party.

All 17 seats on City Council were on the ballot in 2011. The winners from the 2011 elections, including six new members, took office in January. Nine of the 10 district members are Democrats and one is a Republican. Five of the at-large Council members are Democrats and two are Republicans. You can read Seventy’s profiles of the six new members.

Council members must be 25 years old, citizens of the United States, and residents of Philadelphia for one year before taking office. District Council members must also be residents of their Council districts for one year prior to their election, and remain a resident as long as they are in office.

City Council meets regularly from September to June, with a one-month winter break. When in session, Council meets as a full body on Thursday mornings at 10:00 a.m. in Room 400 of Philadelphia City Hall. Council also has 22 Standing Committees where selected members meet to study and discuss bills in-depth, and to hear testimony from the public and other government officials.

City Council has an annual operating budget of just more than $16 million and a staff of close to 170.


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Who is on City Council?


District 1

Mark Squilla (D)
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

District 2

Kenyatta Johnson (D)
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 3

Jannie Blackwell (D)
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 4

Curtis Jones, Jr. (D) Majority Leader
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 5

Darrell Clarke, Council President (D)
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 6

Bob Henon (D)
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 7

Maria Quiñones Sánchez (D)
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

District 8

Cindy Bass (D)
Profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 9

Marian Tasco (D)
Did not return profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

District 10

Brian J. O'Neill (R) Minority Leader
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

At Large

W. Wilson Goode, Jr. (D)
Did not return profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

William K. Greenlee (D) Deputy Majority Whip
Did not return profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

Bill Green (D)
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

James Kenney (D)
Did not return profile | Did not respond to Ethics Agenda

Dennis O'Brien (R)
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

David Oh (R) Minority Whip
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response

Blondell Reynolds Brown (D)
Profile | Ethics Agenda Response


Chief Clerk

Michael Decker


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How is City Council Structured?


Council President

The President of City Council is elected by the 17 members of Council at the beginning of each four-year Council term and typically serves until the next election. Darrell Clarke, a Democrat who represents the Fifth District, was elected Council President at the beginning of 2012.

The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter and Rules of Council grant the president extensive powers to shape and direct the work of Council. For example, the president is in charge of scheduling and running Council meetings, organizing and appointing the chairs and members of Council's committees and directing legislation to the committees. The president also has the authority to dissolve committees.

In addition, the president enforces the Rules of City Council, which establish how Council conducts its business. The Rules of City Council are drafted and approved by the 17 Council members at the beginning of each four-year term. The president also has to certify (by signing) all ordinances, orders, resolutions, and petitions adopted by Council, as well as any leases or contracts requiring Council authorization.

Finally, the president manages the central administrative, policy, and budgetary staff of City Council. It is the president's job to allocate funds to the offices of each member of Council. However, each Council member decides how many employees to hire for the individual offices and what their jobs will be.    

STANDING COMMITTEES

Most, but not all, of Council's standing committees are organized into specific policy areas. The committees each have a chair, vice chair and a minimum of five members. They consider legislation related to their policy areas that is directed to them by the Council President. The committees report back to the full Council on their work.

Several standing committees have special rules for appointing leadership and members.  All 17 Council members serve on the Committee on Ethics, for example, which is chaired by the Council President. Sometimes these rules can be altered. The Committee on Finance is usually chaired by the Majority Leader, but City Council President Darrell Clarke awarded the post to At-Large Councilman Bill Green in 2012.

MAJORITY AND MINORITY PARTY LEADERSHIP

Each political party represented in City Council must nominate and appoint two members to serve as their top leaders: the majority/minority leader and the majority/minority whip. In 2012 City Council added a new Democratic leadership position, Deputy Majority Whip, which is filled by At-Large Councilman William Greenlee.

Council's leadership works with the Council President to decide where to direct legislation, which bill will be granted a hearing, and when the hearing will be held. They are also consulted by the Council President on appointments to committees and, in some cases,  are designated themselves to serve on a committee. The leadership also meets regularly with representatives of the mayor's administration to discuss issues of shared concern. Unlike party leaders in many other legislative bodies, Council's leaders usually don't count votes. That job is typically performed by the prime sponsor(s) of a bill.

CHIEF CLERK

The Chief Clerk handles the administrative responsibilities of City Council, which include reading, collecting, and distributing all legislative documents (bills, resolutions and official communications to and from Council). 

The Clerk is not elected by the voters, but is instead chosen by the 17 Council members at the beginning of each four-year term and serves at their discretion. The current Chief Clerk is Michael Decker.

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What does City Council Do?


Creating and Amending City Laws

As a legislative body, City Council drafts, debates, and enacts legislation that adds to or amends the body of law pertaining exclusively to the city of Philadelphia, known as the City Code. These local laws, called “ordinances,” work in conjunction with state and federal law and with the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter to govern the everyday lives of Philadelphia residents and taxpayers. 

Proposals brought before City Council to create and amend city law are called "bills." However, much of the work that is required to transform a bill into law happens long before a bill is introduced in City Council. Council members may spend months - sometimes years - drafting proposals, meeting with constituents and other interested parties, and making alliances with other Council members to gather support.

The actual legislative process -- which means the steps that must take place between the time a bill is introduced in Council and when it actually becomes part of the City Code -- is often more difficult than it sounds. It requires approval by City Council and action by the mayor (although that action is not necessarily "approval," as we will describe later).

The process for adding provisions to, or amending, the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter requires an additional step: approval by the voters. Proposed Charter additions or amendments are submitted in the form of ballot questions at a primary or general election. If approved by a majority of the voters who cast their vote on a specific ballot question, the addition or amendment becomes a permanent part of the Home Rule Charter.

Step-by-Step Overview of the Legislative Process 

Introducing a Bill: The first step in the legislative process is for one or more Council members -- the "sponsor(s)" -- to introduce a bill. A "motion to introduce the bill" must be approved by a simple majority of Council (9 members). As a courtesy to the sponsor(s) of a bill, Council members typically approve the motion, even if they oppose the contents of a bill. Once the motion to introduce a bill is approved, the bill will then receive an identification number and a “title,” which is a short description of the purpose of the bill.

Council has a searchable database where you can use the identification number, title or the name of a sponsor to find bills that might interest you.


Referring Bills to Committees: After a bill has been formally introduced, it is referred by the Council President to one of the standing committees. Bills are usually sent to the committee that considers matters addressed in the bill. (For example, the Committee on Labor & Civil Service considers all matters relating to labor relations, the Civil Service Commission, the Personnel Director and the Board of Pensions and Retirement.)

Public Hearings and Meetings:  Once a bill is referred to a committee, and at the request of its prime sponsor(s), the committee chair may schedule a public meeting and public hearing to gather information and comments about the bill. (Hearings are not held on every bill that is introduced.) A committee may amend provisions of the bill, but may not change its subject or purpose.

All committee meetings are open to members of the public -- who are also permitted to speak (also known as "testifying"). City officials who wish to speak must provide written testimony 48 hours in advance of a public hearing. This requirement does not apply to other members of the public. 

Committee meetings and hearings must be announced five days in advance, except for zoning district changes, which must be announced 15 days in advance. Announcements must include the title of the bills under consideration, as well as the time and place of the hearing. All announcements are required to be advertised in city newspapers with the three largest daily circulations. (However, in 2009, Philadelphia voters approved allowing City Council by a 2/3 vote to change these advertising rules.) Announcements must also be posted in the office of the Chief Clerk. Finally, to ensure maximum public awareness of activity in Council, notices of the time, date and place of public meetings to determine committee actions on bills must be advertised not less than three days before the meeting in a newspaper of general circulation. 

Public hearings are broadcast on a local cable channel, and can be viewed live online. City Council also publishes transcripts of the hearings and keeps a video catalog of past hearings.

Reporting on a Bill:  Committees are responsible for taking actions on referred bills. The committee may approve or disapprove a bill or withdraw the bill from consideration at the request of the sponsor(s). Before a vote is taken, there must be a "quorum," which means a majority of members who serve on the committee must be in the room. Action requires the votes of a majority of the committee members present.   

After the committee votes on a bill, the committee chair reports on the action decided by the committee to the full Council at its next scheduled meeting. Notice of bills reported from committees must be advertised by title at least five days before the bill comes up for "final consideration" by the full Council. (We will describe what this means shortly.)

Reports are “nonbinding” – which means that the full Council is not required to follow the decision of a committee. A bill that has been disapproved in committee may still be placed on the calendar by a majority vote (9 members). 

First Reading:  Once a committee has reported a bill back to the full Council, a member of Council must call for the bill to be placed on the “First Reading Calendar.” If there are no objections, the bill will be placed on the first reading calendar for the next scheduled full Council meeting. At that meeting, the title of the bill will be read - along with all other bills on the First Reading Calendar - and Council members must vote to approve the first reading. (Note that “reading” doesn’t mean the entire bill is read – instead the bill’s title is read aloud by the Chief Clerk).

Second Reading:  After a bill passes the first reading, a Council member must call for the bill to be placed on the “Second Reading Calendar” within the next four scheduled sessions of the full Council. (If no Council members ask to put the bill on the Second Reading Calendar, the bill will be sent back to committee). If this motion is approved (which it virtually always does as a matter of procedural routine), the bill is placed on the "Second Reading and Final Passage Calendar" for the next scheduled meeting.

Amending a bill:  After a bill is read for a second time, Council members may introduce amendments to the bill. If a bill is amended, it is then placed on the "Final Passage Calendar" at the next scheduled full Council meeting. If a bill is not amended, it can be voted on at the same meeting at which the second reading occurs. 

Final Passage:  Final votes on bills are are taken by asking each member to vote "aye" or "nay," with the president casting the final vote. To pass, a bill must be approved by a simple majority vote (9 members). However, if the bill proposes to add to, or amend, the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, a supermajority vote (12 members) is required. Votes that end in a tie do not pass.

The Mayor: Once City Council has voted to approve a bill, it must certified by the signature of the Council President, attested by the Chief Clerk, and then sent to the Mayor within three days of final passage. If the Mayor signs the bill, or does nothing for 10 days, the bill becomes law. If the Mayor disapproves (or “vetoes”) the bill, it is sent back to Council. Council has ten days to decide whether to put the bill to a vote again. If a supermajority of Council (12 members) approve the bill, it becomes law without the Mayor’s approval. This is known as “overriding a veto.”

Resolutions

Resolutions are another form of legislation that must be approved by City Council, but they differ from bills in that they deal only with Council-related matters that don’t affect other parts of government, such as setting up the rules or organization of Council or authorizing investigations by Council committees. Often resolutions are used for purely ceremonial purposes, such as congratulating successful Philadelphia residents and organizations or for honoring important guests.

To start, a resolution must be printed and distributed to all members of Council 24 hours in advance of the meeting at which it is to be introduced. Next, there must be a motion to formally introduce the resolution in Council. Once introduced, the resolution can be referred to a committee and follow the steps described above for consideration of bills. Alternatively, at the discretion of the Council President, the Rules of Council can be “suspended” and Council can vote for final approval in the same meeting at which the resolution is introduced. (This is often what happens with non-controversial ceremonial resolutions.)

Like bills, resolutions are also subject to amendments from other Council members. The mayor plays no role in these resolutions and does not have to sign or veto them.

Inquiries and Investigations


City Council has the power to conduct special hearings, called inquiries or investigations, to gather information to aid its legislative work. A resolution authorizing an investigation must first be passed by a majority vote (9 members). Once approved, the investigation may be carried out by either the full Council or by one of the standing committees. Like Council meetings, all hearings for investigations are open to the public, except when a committee enters executive session.

Council's power to authorize inquiries or investigation can have an effect on the budget. For example, Council can hold hearings to bring to light what it believes are unmet needs or to challenge the mayor's priorities or to address improved procedures for providing services. Although City Council cannot directly compel the mayor to spend funds if he or she is reluctant to do so, the hearings can shed light on the mayor's decision.

The Council President (if a hearing is before the full Council) or the committee chair (if the hearing is before a committee) has the power to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents. However, Council does not have the power of courts to enforce laws, prosecute crimes, or render verdicts.

Planning City Finances


City Council plays a crucial role in creating the financial plans for how the city will raise and spend money.  The city of Philadelphia does not actually have just one pool of money controlled by a single annual budget; it has several separate budgets designated for different purposes. The three most important budgets, which account for roughly $9.4 billion annually, are the Operating Budget, the Capital Budget, and the Philadelphia School District Budget. (A few smaller budgets cover specific operations, such as the airport).

 •   The Operating Budget, known as the General Fund, is the main financial plan for the operations of city government during a fiscal year. The Fiscal Year 2011 Operating Budget -- which runs from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011 -- is almost $4 billion. It covers all city services for residents and taxpayers, such as collecting trash, repairing roads, putting police and firefighters on the streets, and running social welfare agencies. (The city may also get some federal and state funds to help with certain services). It also covers salaries and benefits for most of the city's 23,000 employees.  

 •   The Capital Budget - which in FY2011 totals around $2.5 billion - primarily includes what the city thinks it needs to invest in its physical environment, such as constructing roads and buildings, improving the airport and buying and maintaining city property. (The capital budget includes only construction and renovation; the day-to-day operation of facilities is part of the operating budget.) The capital budget is prepared and maintained in the same way as the regular operating budget.

 •   The School District Budget covers the operations of the School District of Philadelphia, which operates the city's public schools. The School District has close to the same number of employees (24,000) and the same budget as city government ($3.5 billion in FY2011, combining local, state, and federal money). The School District’s budget is prepared and approved by the independent School Reform Commission, which is controlled by state government. However, its budget must be reviewed by City Council. Council is responsible for authorizing the taxes that support the public schools. Fifty six percent of the city's real estate taxes, for example, go to the School District. The schools also get a small amount of money from the city's operating budget. 

Passing the Annual Budget

Before taking effect at the start of each fiscal year on July 1, the annual Operating Budget must pass through the hands of both the mayor and City Council.

The Mayor is responsible for crafting the initial financial plan for the general fund operating budget and presenting it to Council. The proposed budget outlines how much the Mayor would like to spend on each city department and function. It also includes a vitally important number – how much the mayor and his appointed Finance Director estimate the city will bring in during the fiscal year from taxes, aid from the state and federal government, and other forms of income such as fees and interest. This estimate is very important since it sets the upper limit of how much money the city may spend. By law, the city budget must be balanced, which means it cannot spend more than it takes in. 

The Mayor must present the annual budget to City Council at least 90 days before the final budget is due (on June 30 of each year). The presentation usually happens, accompanied by the Mayor's budget address, in February or March. This gives City Council and the Mayor plenty of time to come to an agreement. The full Council, rather than a committee of Council, considers the operating budget, capital budget and School District budgets.

Throughout April and May, Council holds hearings to hear the details on proposed spending by virtually every taxpayer-funded unit of city government, including the Mayor’s Office, City departments, commissions, boards and agencies, SEPTA, the independently elected row offices and the School District of Philadelphia.  Only City Council itself does not have to face questions about its budget. Its annual operating appropriation is enacted into law when Council enacts the entire city operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

Council members may make changes to the Mayor’s budget, including the way money is spent. However, Council may not increase the Mayor’s estimate of incoming revenue. By May 31, Council must pass its version of the budget and send it back to the Mayor.

By June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, the Mayor must approve, veto, or decline to sign the budget. Like bills, a mayoral veto can be overridden by a supermajority (12 members). If the Mayor does nothing -- refusing to either sign or veto – the budget goes into effect automatically.

Once approved by City Council and the mayor, the budget (as part of a five-year plan), must be approved by an agency called the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. PICA, which was created during the city’s fiscal crisis in 1991 to provide oversight and additional funding through bonds and debt to the city, has five members -- one appointed by the Governor of Pennsylvania and one each by the Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate and House. The state's Budget Secretary and the city's Finance Director are also members of PICA, but they don't vote on the city's budget. 

Budget Work Year-Round

After the budget process is completed, and the fiscal year gets underway, City Council continues to play a significant role in city's finances. Although the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter prohibits increasing the total appropriation in the original operating budget, funds can be transferred from one city department or agency to another city department or agency. A "transfer ordinance" can be requested by the mayor, or introduced on Council's own initiative. Although Council must approve all transfer ordinances, it cannot authorize a transfer in the last four months of a fiscal year unless recommended by the mayor. 

Under the Home Rule Charter, Council must also approve all contracts for leasing property or for purchasing goods and services that are for a term of more than one year. Additionally, Council must also approve every proposed purchase (and sale) of real property by the city.

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What are full City Council meetings like?


Order of Business at a FULL COUNCIL MEETING 

Here is what a typical Council meeting looks like:

1. Opening prayer: Delivered by the designated City Council Chaplain or an invited guest clergy member.

2. Review of records from the previous full Council meeting: Council members may offer amendments.

3. Applications for leaves of absence by Council members from future meetings.

4. Reading of communications by the Chief Clerk: Communications typically include letters and reports from the mayor.

5. Introduction of new bills and resolutions by the Chief Clerk. Non-controversial resolutions can be voted on.

6. Referrals of introduced bills and resolutions to standing committees by the Council President. 

7. Reports by the chairs of standing committees on bills and resolutions considered by their committees, along with recommendations for action by the full Council. 

8. Special business: Council conducts internal business, including confirming appointments to city boards and commissions or to state authorities.

9. First Reading: The Chief Clerk reads the title of bills and resolutions on the First Reading Calendar.

10. Second Reading and Final Passage: The Chief Clerk reads the title of bills and resolutions on the Second Reading and Final Passage Calendar. City Council members can offer amendments. Bills that are not amended can be voted on at this meeting. Bills that are amended will be considered for final passage at the next scheduled full Council meeting. The Rules of Council provide that bills or resolutions on the Final Passage Calendar are considered before those on the Second Reading and Final Passage Calendar because they are older.

11. Bills on final passage recalled from the Mayor: The Clerk reads bills vetoed by the Mayor. A Council member may call for the bill to be put to a vote again. If a supermajority vote (12 members) to override the Mayor's veto, the bill becomes law.

12. Adjournment.

Public Participation in Full Council Meetings

All meetings of the full Council are open to the public and are announced at least 48 hours in advance by advertisement in the two newspapers with the largest circulation in Philadelphia and on City Council's Website

If the full Council is holding a properly advertised meeting, members of the public and government officials are permitted to testify. In addition, as of December 2010, Philadelphia residents and taxpayers may comment for up to three minutes on any bill or resolution on the meeting's Second Reading and Final Passage calendar. 

People wishing to comment should register with the Chief Clerk's office in advance.

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