"That's a giant ward, and John has a lot of juice up there," said former Councilman Rick Mariano, who represented most of the area until he went to prison for a federal bribery conviction. "He rules it like a fiefdom."
Just before a hearing in Feltonville Wednesday night, a reporter asked Council President Anna C. Verna how redistricting talks were going.
"It's going well except for one area," Verna said.
"The 56th Ward?"
"How'd you guess?" Verna asked, rolling her eyes.
Sabatina, 65, a lawyer, has led the 56th since 1980, chosen by the ward's Democratic committee members.
In recent years, he has made thousands of dollars as a political consultant, helping judicial candidates negotiate with ward leaders for Democratic Party backing, but he said his consulting had nothing to do with Council races.
Reached by telephone Thursday, Sabatina said nobody had discussed redistricting with him, but he said it would be an injustice if it diluted his or the ward's ability to get things done.
"Basically I'm a ward leader who represents my ward, trying to deal with various political officials to help the constituents who live within my ward," he said. "I try to make sure that my area gets a fair share."
A varied group of witnesses showed up for Wednesday's hearing at the Nueva Esperanza Academy Charter School. They included included Hispanic leaders, political and civic activists, representatives of the city's Asian American community, and academics.
It was a one-sided conversation for the most part. Five Council members listened politely while the witnesses pressed their major points: consolidating most of the city's Hispanic population in a single district and improving on the disjointed, irregular boundaries that Council created 10 years ago.
For two months, a group of Council staffers has been meeting in private with individual Council members, soliciting their advice on dividing the city's 1.53 million people into 10 districts of roughly equal size, in line with census counts made public in March.
The City Charter provides just six months to get the job done, or Council paychecks are suspended until the new boundaries are approved.
The six months run out next week, as Council returns from its summer recess. Verna appointed herself, Darrell L. Clarke, Marian B. Tasco, Maria Quiñones Sánchez, and Brian J. O'Neill to a redistricting committee, hoping to draw up a plan to be introduced on Council's first day back, Thursday.
Several witnesses complained Wednesday about the lack of openness.
"We still haven't seen a plan, and you're just a week away," said Michael McCrea, a Democratic committeeman in the 42d Ward.
"We haven't seen it either," said Clarke, opening his hands and shrugging.
The five Council members present - Verna, Clarke, Tasco, Sánchez, and W. Wilson Goode Jr. - provided little information on their own priorities until veteran TV reporter Trudy Haynes took the microphone and asked when Council would share its work with the public.
"How can they respond without something on the table?" Haynes asked.
Sánchez said it was still Council's goal to have a draft plan by Sept. 8.
But Clarke said the deadline was less important than crafting a bill "as fair and reasonable as possible."
"If we miss a few paychecks, we will miss a few paychecks," Clarke said.
"It's a very difficult situation," Tasco told a reporter who asked how the negotiations were going.
"You all [reporters] are the ones talking about our paychecks," Tasco said. "We will take our time, deliberate thoughtfully, and we will come up with a plan that will not look like that map over there," pointing toward a map of the current Council districts.
Contact staff writer Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or firstname.lastname@example.org.