Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Is it time to rethink City Council?

WITH THE city's budget shortfall about to force cuts throughout the government, is it time to expect City Council to do the same? Last week, Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. proposed changing the way at-large members are elected. And Curtis Jones is raising money to open three district offices.

Last week, the Committee of 70 called for a "full review" of Council's structure and operations.

For many Philadelphians, City Council remains an obscure institution. That's why "It's Our Money" — a partnership between the Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation — has developed the map below, with the help of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

The map defines the borders, population, and demographic information for each City Council district. (Space constraints prohibit ethnic group breakdowns more detailed than white/nonwhite; check out our website for more.) Council budgets, included here with staff, cover staff salaries. Anna Verna has an additional budget to cover her functions as council president.

More coverage
  • DN GRAPHIC: District-by-district details
  • Five ideas to shake up City Council

    So what might a new Council look like? "It's Our Money" asked government experts around the country to offer ideas to get a discussion going.

    1. Non-partisan elections. Now, candidates must win the nomination of a political party to run in the general election. In non-partisan elections, candidates don't declare an affiliation with any party. Politicians run as individuals, judged on their own merits. Many cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Denver, use non-partisan elections for municipal offices.

    2. Instant run-off voting allows voters to rank all candidates in the order of their preference. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the one with the lowest ranking is eliminated. Votes are redistributed to other candidates based on ranking until someone gets enough to win. Typically used for single-candidate elections, but Cambridge, Mass. uses for all municipal offices.

    3. Multimember districts. Instead of having 10 different council districts represented by ten different people, imagine, for example, five districts, each represented by two people. Multimember districts are popular in European cities and also used by the state legislature in Maryland. This type of system allows broader representation from various communities within a district.

    4. Eliminate all at-large seats and expand the number of districts. City Council districts span a wide variety of areas. Many neighborhoods that have radically different needs, such as Chestnut Hill and Nicetown, are lumped into the same district.

    Eliminating at-large seats would free up funding to shrink the size of districts. That would increase the number of district council members and allow for better representation.

    5. Term limits would ensure turnover in City Council and eliminate the professional politician. Such a proposal is unlikely, since the current Council would have to approve it.

    Do you have ideas to change City Council? Visit www.ourmoneyphilly.com and tell us what you think. *

    Ben Waxman reports on the city budget for It's Our Money.

    BEN WAXMAN