Who knew that all that “We the people” stuff could be so easily forgotten just a few blocks from where it started?
Thanks to a recent court ruling, Philadelphia’s commoners will now have an opportunity to speak at regular meetings of the City Council. But it took nothing less than the highest court in the commonwealth — overruling more than a half-century of backward practice, two lower courts, and a dissent by three of its seven justices (including the court’s two Philadelphians, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery) — to bring this revolutionary concept into our own house of lords.
As you might suspect, Council members were none too happy about being forcibly dragged into the 18th century, and the company of their unwashed subjects. Council President Anna C. Verna’s reaction fairly dripped with aristocratic peevishness: “Of course, Council will comply with all final decisions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and with all statutory requirements, and if that means changing our procedures to provide a public-comment period during Council sessions, we will do so.”
It’s tiresome indeed when one’s cherished “procedures” are trampled in the name of such trivialities as the courts, the laws, and the public. For his part, former Councilman Angel Ortiz worried that public comment would “cause a lot of commotion,” encouraging people to “come in and think they’re the next city councilperson.” Imagine that: noisy plebeians deluded into thinking that just anyone could be a member of City Council! These are hereditary offices, after all.
Public-comment periods are standard at city council meetings around the country — appropriately so, given that these are the elected governments closest to the people. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s 1993 Sunshine Act requires that the public be given “a reasonable opportunity” to comment at public meetings. But since 1951, Philadelphia has relegated public comment to its committee meetings and kept the rabble out of full Council sessions.
The Supreme Court majority, ruling on a 2007 lawsuit by a landlords’ association that was prevented from weighing in at a Council meeting, found “simply no authorization” in the Sunshine Act “for delegation of the obligation to entertain public comment to some body other than a board or council.”
That the local government of the birthplace of American democracy could so thoughtlessly exclude public participation for so long — and now allow it so reluctantly — is a sad irony. It’s enough to make you want to hear what that self-appointed “next city councilperson” has to say.