Moments earlier, Verna, proud of her reputation for fairness and honesty, had faced the question most offensive to her: Did she quit rather than face public backlash for her participation the city's DROP program, which would allow her to collect nearly $585,000 in a lump sum pension payment and still seek reelection?
"Ab-so-lute-ly, un-equivo-cably, no!" she said, clearly fed up with the subject as she called for the next question.
"I have always known when the time to step down would be right," Verna said from the Council chamber lectern she has owned since 1999, when she succeeded John F. Street to become Council's first female president.
That time will be next January, at the end of her ninth term. She turns 80 on April 15.
"I really think I have done what I want to in life," she said.
On Monday, she was surrounded by a half-dozen ward leaders from her area of South and Southwest Philadelphia, who have been the glue of an effective organization that she inherited from her father, William Cibotti, and her political mentor, longtime U.S. Rep. Bill Barrett. She lunched with ward leaders in her office, thanking them for their support, before meeting with reporters.
"She was at her best when it came to her constituent service," said Anna M. Brown, leader of Ward 40B, whom Verna helped land a job for Council President Joseph Coleman in 1984. That devotion to constituent service, rather than larger policy issues, kept returning her to office, and it was that service of which she is most proud.
Verna was first hired by City Treasurer Richardson Dilworth - the future district attorney and mayor - in 1951, and was hired by her father when he took office. Her father, Barrett's top lieutenant, held the Second District seat from 1967 until 1975, when he died and his daughter succeeded him in a special election.
Mayor Nutter called Verna "one of our city's great public servants . . . a great leader, a savvy politician, and a person who has played a critical role in making our city a better place in which to live and work."
"I have always appreciated her energy, insight, and ability to bring people together," Nutter said. "She served the public as if they were family, and I'm sure that when she retires early next year, she'll find new ways to serve Philadelphia."
Now begins the jockeying to become the next Council president, with Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco and Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke as the front-runners.
It's a position that can be the center of a political empire, exerting control over 35 jobs on Council's central staff, with final say on contracts, committee assignments, hearings, even office furnishings.
The Council president also controls 53 appointments, from seats on the Board of City Trusts to Independence Blue Cross, from the Convention Center to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
Verna's decision assures that at least four new Council members will be seated next year, with Democrats Joan L. Krajewski and Donna Reed Miller leaving, along with Republican Jack Kelly.
Clarke said it was too early to discuss the politics of the next presidency. He praised Verna, noting that the lack of close votes over her tenure was a tribute to her consensus-building.
"That says a lot about leadership," Clarke said. "She always makes sure that everybody - even if it was the last person to hold out on an issue - she would make sure they had a chance to be heard."
Bill Green, who entered Council in 2008 with fellow first-termers Curtis Jones Jr. and Maria Quiñones Sánchez, said he could not have imagined a president who would have given the trio more latitude to work on their initiatives.
"She's a lady, and she has a style that people respect," said Tasco, "and she certainly has been someone who keeps her word, and that's very key when you're working with people."
"We all, in my opinion, admire her leadership," said Councilman Frank Rizzo, whose father was a Verna ally. "She's never interfered with our individual offices."
With the announcement, the race for her seat buzzed with activity.
Lawyer Damon K. Roberts, who took on Verna in the Democratic primary in 2007, has been gathering support for weeks.
On Monday, he praised the woman who never experienced a close election in her political life - for Council or for leader of the 36th Ward, the mostly African American district of South Philadelphia she hasn't lived in since 2007.
"Today is a fantastic day. It's a day to appreciate the Council president for her 36 years of service to the Second District and more than 60 years of service to the city," said Roberts.
Also on Monday, a long-term Verna ally jumped into the race - real estate broker and attorney Barbara Capozzi.
Teacher and children's author Louis "Luigi" Borda has also declared his candidacy; lawyer Vincent DeFino said he's considering; and Marita Crawford, who worked for the Democratic City Committee and Green, said she also was thinking about it.
Register of Wills Ronald Donatucci, a longtime Verna ally, said he had received 20 phone calls from people interested in the seat.
Verna was torn about her decision, after a life dedicated to public service and her husband, Severino, who died in 2009. She faced an uncertain future as president, with others vying for the seat, and most likely a nasty campaign in the Second District, although most experts had predicted she would win.
And, despite her objections, Verna has been concerned that she would be painted as something other than the hardworking public servant, whose word was her bond, for failing to retire at the end of the year, as she committed to do when she joined DROP.
DROP allows city employees to build up to four years of pension payments in their last years of city service, in exchange for an irrevocable commitment to retire. While some elected officials have determined they can collect DROP and still ask voters to return them to office, Verna chose not to take that path.
Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg, a ready critic of City Council and its embrace of DROP, seemed relieved by Verna's decision.
"Verna served honorably for a very long period of time, and should be praised for that," Stalberg said. "I'm glad that her reputation didn't get muddied up by a fight over DROP."
Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or email@example.com.