NOT LONG AGO, political insiders looked ahead to the 2011 City Council elections as a time of great change — when as many as seven of the 17 legislative seats could open for new members.
But as 2011 draws closer, it looks increasingly unlikely that all those slots will open up. Many members who were expected to retire are considering running again.
Put bluntly: It's hard for Council members to fold.
"It's definitely a healthy salary and there are tangible perks like cars and intangible perks like prestige," said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "I think it would be healthy if there was more turnover."
The reason a mass exodus was expected was simple. Six members are enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), which would require them to retire at the end of their terms to collect a lump-sum payout.
But a loophole in the program allows them to run for re-election and if they win, retire for a day, take the money and get "re-hired" for another term. Councilwoman Joan Krajewski did just that in 2008. Now others are considering the same move.
"I think we're likely to see a number of people resign for a day and take their lump-sum payment and come back," Stalberg said. "We still hold that it is inappropriate and is exactly the kind of thing that makes citizens extremely cynical about elected officials and governments."
Designed to help the city better manage for retirements and vacancies, DROP lets city workers set a retirement date up to four years in advance. At that point, their pension benefit is frozen and they start accruing pension payments in an interest-bearing account. Workers then receive those payments in a lump sum when they retire, and also start collecting their annual pension.
Critics of DROP have called it an inappropriate program for elected officials. But Council members say that they've been unfairly attacked for enrolling in a permitted benefit program. Those Council members who choose to retire for a day and re-enter the city workforce cannot apply for DROP again, their pension benefits do not increase and they cannot start getting their annual pension until they permanently leave office.
Still, for those considering another run, the question is: Will DROP become a political burden, or will the power of incumbency carry them to re-election?
"I think political opponents will try to make it an issue," Stalberg said.
It's rare for Council members to actually retire. They are more likely to leave office because they lose re-election, are seeking another position or die. The last Council member to retire was Augusta Clark, who left in 1999 after five terms due to health reasons.
Councilman David Cohen died in 2005 at the age of 90, midway through his eighth Council term. And Councilman Thacher Longstreth died in 2003 during his sixth term.
Not that death is a bar to office. In 1975, voters re-elected Councilman Francis D. O'Donnell after he had gone on to his eternal rest.
Here's a status update on the Council members currently or previously in DROP:
Anna Verna — The 78-year-old Council president, whose district includes parts of South and Southwest Philadelphia and Center City, is keeping her options open. She's set to get a $571,679 DROP payment.
Through a spokesman, Verna said that she hadn't decided about running. A key question surrounding her future is whether she would be assured the presidency on her return. Several colleagues are already eyeing the post.
Marian Tasco — The word is that Tasco, 72, is interested in the ornate presidential chair and is seriously considering running for re-election in her Northwest Philadelphia district.
Jerry Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania NAACP, said that he wanted Tasco to return.
"I hope she comes back for the team," said Mondesire.
Tasco — who will receive a $467,566 DROP payment — did not respond to requests for comment. Both Tasco and Verna are likely to seek support of their colleagues for the presidency before the 2011 primary, and whoever falls short may not seek re-election.
Frank DiCicco — Through a spokesman, DiCicco, 63, confirmed that he plans to run for another term. But the councilman, whose district stretches along the Delaware from South Philadelphia to the lower Northeast, knows that the DROP issue — he'll get a $392,194 payment — could be a political hot potato. "He recognizes it's an issue," said aide Brian Abernathy. "He is going to deal with it. It is not going to go unaddresed or ignored."
Donna Reed Miller — Miller, 63, has defeated primary challengers in previous elections in her Northwest Philadelphia district. Is she considering another go? Her spokesman said that she hasn't made up her mind. She's set to receive a $190,099 DROP payment.
Frank Rizzo — The at-large Republican has been publicly flirting with running for state lieutenant governor this spring, but odds are he'll run again for Council despite his $188,873 DROP payout.
"I plan to run for re-election in the event that the lieutenant governor opportunity doesn't develop," Rizzo, 66, said.
As for DROP, Rizzo said: "The program was an appropriate program. I have had very few people complain about my opportunity."
Jack Kelly — The other at-large GOP councilman says that he hasn't made up his mind yet, but most insiders expect that the 71-year-old will leave at the end of this term with his $299,163 in DROP cash.
Many think Kelly was politically weakened last year when his former chief of staff was sentenced to four years on federal corruption charges.
With potential replacements lining up around City Hall, look for this seat to be a hot race in 2011.
Joan Krajewski — The 75-year-old, who already took her $297,466 DROP payment, also would not commit to leaving. Krajewski, who represents lower Northeast Philadelphia, said that she hasn't decided yet. However, many consider her likely to hang up her hat at the end of this term.
Already there is interest in the seats that are expected to open up.
Those said to be considering an at-large Republican run include former state Rep. George Kenney, state Rep. Dennis O'Brien, one-time mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger, attorney David Oh and recent city controller candidate Al Schmidt.
Kenney and O'Brien did not respond to requests for comment. But Schmidt, Oh and Taubenberger all said that they were contemplating running, although Taubenberger stressed that he wouldn't run if Kelly decided to run again.
Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Mike McGeehan, of the Northeast, is reportedly interested in Krajewski's seat. He declined to comment on his plans, saying that he wanted to wait to see what Krajewski would do. *