A new-look Philadelphia City Council has already met at least one expectation through its first legislative session of the year – punctuality. Council gaveled in its first session meeting of 2024 at 10 a.m. Thursday. The on-time start, a rarity in previous years, is expected to be the new norm under new Council President Kenyatta Johnson.
The commitment to punctuality – an early promise from Johnson – is just one of several procedural changes in place this new term.
Council resumed the pre-COVID practice of caucusing in Room 401 at 9:30 a.m., before council session. Johnson said council will also resume in-person presentation of resolutions to honorees and hold in-person committee hearings throughout the budgeting process.
“It is a new day for the Philadelphia City Council,” Johnson said in a statement. “This first Council session in Council chambers is going to be exciting for all of my colleagues to experience a traditional Council session. It is also a signal to all Philadelphians that City Council is fully open once again and accessible to the people.”
A new-look council comes with its fair share of newbies. Twelve of council’s 17 members have served one term or less, with four new members being welcomed into the chamber Thursday – three Democrats and one Working Families Party member.
Councilmember Jeffery Young, representing the 5th district, and at-large Councilmembers Rue Landau, Nina Ahmad and Nicholas O’Rourke entered the chamber as legislators for the first time Thursday. O’Rourke, whose win blocked Republicans from the city’s two non-majority seats, takes over the role as minority whip.
In what’s expected to be a common occurrence, advocates opposing the Philadelphia 76ers arena proposal for Market East staged a protest outside of City Hall prior to council session.
The Save Chinatown Coalition, which was also present during council session, spoke out against the proposed development and said City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who represents the 1st district – where the arena would be located – should be “accountable to his commitment to ensure 76 Place does not take any city, state, or federal money.”
Meanwhile, the Sixers organization announced Thursday morning it has gathered more than 30,000 signatures on petitions supporting the plan to build a $1.55 billion arena near the Fashion District mall and on the edge of Chinatown. The announcement came alongside calls for legislation to enable the project.
Following Mayor Cherelle Parker’s budget unveiling in March and subsequent budget negotiations, council is expected to address the arena proposal and possible zoning changes by the end of session in June.
Minority Whip O’Rourke introduced a renter protection bill that would create additional layers of accountability for landlords, requiring that the private contractors who handle such evictions – known as landlord-tenant officers – to undergo training on evictions, firearm safety and crisis intervention, among other things. Referencing several shootings that took place during eviction processes last year, including that of Angel Davis, who was shot in the head, O’Rourke said immediate action must be taken to restore accountability over a public function that “operates recklessly and opaquely.”
The legislation “is creating a licensing for persons who are doing these evictions,” O’Rourke told City & State, noting that the City of Philadelphia is the only such entity in the commonwealth where a sheriff or municipal or county official doesn’t oversee evictions. The landlord-tenant officer system as currently constructed, he said, “is a for-profit entity (whose) whole incentive is to make dollars and cents and they’re going to do it as quickly and, sometimes, as inhumanly as possible to get the job done.”
New Majority Leader Katherine Gilmore Richardson introduced legislation to investigate the city’s Office of Homeless Services and to establish the Office of Homeless Services Ombudsperson. The move comes after reports last week revealing that the office spent $15 million more than it was budgeted over the last four years while a half-dozen nonprofits holding contracts with the city have experienced severe payment delays.
“After years of questionable mismanagement of funds and providing poor customer service, despite significant increases in funding from City Council, it is time to ensure unhoused constituents have an advocate working directly for them,” Gilmore Richardson said in a statement. “I am glad that the Office of the Inspector General is investigating this situation, and I look forward to partnering with the new Parker Administration and my City Council colleagues to find a sustainable solution to this problem.”