Despite rules, Council quorum rarely present at budget hearings

Philadelphia City Council's poor attendance at its own budget hearings is nothing new and is an apparent violation of the body’s own rules, which require at least nine members to be present. Here, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter shakes the hand of councilman Curtis Jones after giving his budget address on March 6, 2014. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER /File)

This post has been updated.

As Council Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. began this morning’s budget hearing on the City Controller's Office, he was joined in Council chambers by only four of his 15 colleagues.

Some would wander in later, and some would leave. But at no point during Controller Alan Butkovitz's testimony was a majority of Council members present.

Unless, that is, you ask City Council.

The annual two-month gauntlet of budget hearings is technically one long session of the Committee of the Whole, which includes all of the lawmakers. Council now has 16 members, due to a vacancy, but a quorum still requires nine to be present.

That’s a rare sight during budget hearings. But meetings with only a few members can go on so long as no one calls for a quorum check or vote.

“When Council convenes with a quorum present, it is technically true that a quorum is present throughout the meeting unless indicated otherwise on the record by a member or during a vote attempt,” Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clarke, wrote in an email.

On Monday, Council posted online a document laying out procedures for this year's budget hearings. It said that a quorum “is expected to be in Council Chambers at all times that such Committee is in session.”

Roh said today, however, that the wording was incorrect, due to a staff error, and that a majority is not required to be physically present for the hearings.

Council Clerk Michael Decker said that if a member calls for a quorum check at any point and fewer than nine are present, the meeting must pause until a majority shows up. Otherwise, he said, quorums need only be present for votes.

“If there is at any point a lack of a quorum, it’s up to the Council members to suggest that there is a lack of a quorum,” Decker said.

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, policy director for the Committee of Seventy good-government group, said Philly’s practices about when members need to be present are similar to councils in other cities. But, she said, Council ought to be more present during the budget hearings.

“What’s troubling about the lack of a quorum during budget hearings is that arguably Council’s most important legislative responsibility is its power of the purse,” Kaplan said. “When Council members come and go at random, talk on cell phones during hearings or are absent altogether, it sends a message to the public that they have better things to do with their time.”

Attendance during budget hearings has been better under Clarke than it was in the later years of Ana Verna's run as the body's leader. Still, quorums are rarely present, with the exception of hearings on high-profile departments.

Clarke said that he understands that members have other responsibilities.

“There’s other business to do. You can’t just sit here all day,” said Clarke, who is present at almost all the meetings but was absent this morning. “I wasn’t here early because I was up meeting with HUD officials, hoping that we’re going to get a $30 million HUD grant. I needed to be there.”