Council displayed that improvement during its methodical deconstruction of the Nutter administration's Actual Value Initiative, the planned citywide fix of property assessments. This material is about as opaque and complicated as municipal business gets, and it's the sort of stuff that has put past Councils to sleep. Literally, in some cases.
So I'd expected this Council either to reject it out of hand (as too scary a change) or to pass it quickly (so as not to interfere with summer vacation plans).
What I didn't expect was several months' worth of rigorous, critical examination that exposed AVI as not ready for prime time, and culminated in the budget that Council approved Thursday (the fourth straight budget that the body has strongly influenced).
The AVI takedown started simply enough, with pointed requests for information from the administration that was not forthcoming. Bit by bit, Council revealed just how many holes there were in this huge but unfinished plan. "The unknown unknowns may exceed the many known unknowns," Councilman Bill Green (the former mayor's son) at one point told the Philadelphia Tribune.
Council could have stopped there and voted blindly, yes or no. Instead, it started finding answers.
Councilman Green created a useful spreadsheet that let property owners estimate their tax bills under AVI. And then Council's own consultants came up with a rough estimate for the total value of all property in the city (a key contribution, since this figure determines what the tax rate will be).
Both were cases of Council doing the Nutter administration's homework. And both showed that AVI's impacts would be huge and unpredictable. So Council punted.
In the Nutter administration's view, Council lacked the courage to enact a politically unpopular but necessary reform. Two weeks ago, as AVI crumbled, Mayor Nutter told Inquirer reporter Miriam Hill, "Many of our elected officials were very, very nervous about backlash from those property owners."
But I don't think fear explains it. Council wasn't poking make-believe holes in AVI. These were gaping chasms, and we wouldn't have known anything about them if not for Council's diligence.
And AVI is just one example. Big ideas about addressing Philadelphia's huge problems are now coming out of Council. Small-business-friendly tax reform, for instance. Or the notion of a land bank to deal with vacant property.
Some people chalk up Council's emergence to Nutter's inability to create a majority bloc there of his own.
But that view overlooks the fact that this Council is populated by a more ambitious and intelligent bunch than Councils of the past. The last election brought in six new members, who are just beginning to find their legs. Even as rookies, they're a huge improvement over the members they replaced, the heart of Council's dead wood.
Council staff, the aides and researchers who work for the members, seems improved as well. That has made Council less reliant on the administration for answers and analysis, which translates into more independence.
It's more ably led by President Darrell L. Clarke in place of the octogenarian Anna C. Verna. Indeed, the body is far younger now than in the recent past. Fewer members are running out the clock and collecting paychecks, and more are positioning themselves for a possible future mayoral run or some other seat.
That ambition can and does lead to grandstanding. But I'll take that swagger over the inertia of the recent past. Whatever you make of the motives, it is hard to deny that Council is working harder and more effectively than it has in a long time.
That competence will take some getting used to. Luckily, Council hasn't shaken loose all of its old ways. Members still do boneheaded and arbitrary things, like insisting on veto power over bike lanes. And this group clings to councilmanic privilege - the hoary old tradition that gives members far too much sway over their sections of the city - as tightly as their forebears. And yes, 11 of the 17 members cast votes to preserve DROP.
So, not the best legislative body in the free world. Not close. But not the worst anymore, either.
Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer City Hall reporter. He can be reached on Twitter @pkerkstra.