Long goodbyes overshadowed the passage of several pieces of legislation — including a landmark zoning ordinance — in City Council on Thursday, as members held their final meeting of the year and bid farewell to six retiring colleagues, most notably long-serving Council President Anna C. Verna.
“It’s so very difficult to believe that this is my last Council session,” Verna said in a speech at the end of the meeting, during which she was showered with accolades from members and an impromptu visit from Mayor Michael Nutter, who presented her with a Philadelphia Bowl, one of the city’s highest honors.
“She is the longest serving public servant in the entire city of Philadelphia,” he said, noting that he learned a great many political lessons from her during his tenure as a city councilman. “The great thing about our Council president is that she wears her passion for this city on her sleeve. She cares so much.”
Verna has been Council president since 1999, the 2nd District’s representative since 1975, and has worked at City Hall since 1951.
It was also the last meeting for five other members — Frank DiCicco, who has represented the 1st District for 16 years; Joan Krajewski, 6th District representative since 1979; Donna Reed Miller of the 8th District, who has held her seat since 1996; at-large Councilman. Jack Kelly, who has served since 1988, and Councilman Frank Rizzo, who has served as an at-large member since 1995.
“I wish you Godspeed as you continue the important work that still needs to be done,” said Verna in a farewell speech to those remaining in office. Then turning to those about to enter retirement, she said, “I wish you continued good health and happiness. Enjoy every minute of it.”
Moments earlier in more candid remarks, Verna noted that over the course of her career she’d spent more time in City Hall than she had at home.
“I wonder if that’s a good thing to do,” she said, adding: “I’m going to miss this place.”
Verna received three prolonged standing ovations during the meeting.
During the meat-and-potatoes portion of the meeting, Council unanimously approved a proposal from Councilman Jim Kenney that would require subcontractors to report to L&I (the Department of Licenses and Inspections) when they sign with a general contractor on any job.
Kenney said the move was intended to make sure that workers pay the city’s taxes and worker’s compensation.
“One general contractor will pull a permit and they will hire unlicensed contractors who bring in workers who get paid cash or as independent contractors so we’re not getting any of the wage taxes or the permit fees,” he said.
The bill prompted comment from two Black contractors.
Colin Johnson, a licensed plumber and electrician, said he did not oppose the bill, but told Council he would like to see some legislation that would force contractors and the trade unions to add Black members.
“The present PLAs (project labor agreements) that the city has with the trade unions is unfulfilling to African-American males in terms of inclusion,” he said. “Because the specialty trades, which are made up or predominantly white males … they are going to make decisions which are reflective of their white male colleagues.”
“We can’t allow bills to come before this Council and we don’t do anything for African-American males,” agreed Jihad Ali, noting that Kenney’s bill was not intended to address his concerns and adding that he hoped Council would soon tackle the problem of union inclusion. “Look at the record, we’re not reflected in the unions. We’re here to change that.”
The departure of the six members paves the way for a radical change in the make up of Council. And, Verna’s retirement sets the stage for the election of a new president, which means there will likely be much jockeying among three contenders for the office over Christmas recess. Majority Leader Marian Tasco, Majority Whip Darrell Clarke and at-large Councilman Kenney have all expressed an interest in the position. Clarke appears to have the backing of the nine members he’ll need to secure the spot, but with several weeks before the new Council is seated that could change.
Of the departing members, several will receive large DROP payments upon retirement. It was a fact that DiCicco couldn’t help but tweak his fellow retirees about as Nutter gave each a framed print of City Hall along with a mayoral citation for service.
“These are blow-ups of the DROP checks,” quipped DiCicco.
In another unanimous move, Council passed a new zoning ordinance, ending five years of work on an overhaul of the zoning code.
Among its major provisions: a requirement that developers to keep communities abreast of their plans, allowing them to shape projects long before they’ve had that opportunity under the current zoning code, where most issues are addressed at Zoning Board of Adjustment hearings. The proposed code requires developers to notify registered community organizations, or, in their absence district Council representatives, of large projects. It also requires developers to meet with those groups so they can air their concerns.
The new code also deals with uses that often did not exist when the old code was drafted. Among them are some that often end up being the most contentious —like private re-entry facilities, group homes and group medical practices.
Council also passed a lead paint abatement bill 16-1 with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell opposing the measure.
In other news, Council amended a proposal by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown aimed at keeping children from coming into contact with lead paint. The bill requires landlords who rent to families with children age six or under to remove lead paint from their properties.
Finally, Nutter vetoed a bill that would have allowed a “wall wrap” billboard planned for a property at Sixth and Spring Garden streets.