Freshman year scorecard for City Council's 'Serious Six'

Kenyatta Johnson AKIRA SUWA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Kenyatta Johnson AKIRA SUWA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 10, 2012

The honeymoon ended fast for City Council's six freshmen members, who were forced to wrestle with one of the most complicated budgets in recent times.

Newly elected Council President Darrell Clarke warned them at Council's first session, "To my new colleagues: Guys, you are in for one heck of a ride."

And so they were.

Freshmen Council members Mark Squilla, Cindy Bass, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Dennis O'Brien and David Oh have been dubbed "The Serious Six" by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. for what he considers hard work and a professional approach. The diverse bunch, hailing from different political camps, was the largest group of new members since seven were elected in 1991.

Six months into the job, they are still finding their way, but here's a midterm report card:

MARK SQUILLA

The skinny: A former systems analyst for the state Auditor General's Office who also served as president of South Philly community group the Whitman Council, Squilla was a leading voice against Mayor Nutter's proposed property-tax overhaul.

Highlights: Squilla's heavily gentrified 1st District, which includes parts of South Philadelphia, Center City, Old City and the river wards, would have been among the hardest-hit by Nutter's plan to move to a property-tax system based on market values, known as the Actual Value Initiative (AVI). Squilla dealt a major blow to Nutter's plan early in the budget debate by pushing a bill that would keep the current property-tax system, assessments and millage rate in place for another year. His proposal won out.

Squilla also sponsored legislation to increase the fee on parking tickets to generate $4 million for maintaining recreation facilities and for operations of the Philadelphia Parking Authority Taxicab and Limousine Division.

Quote: "I'm a big question-asker," he said, adding that Councilman Jim Kenney, whose office is next door to his, has been his go-to guy. "I'm sure he caught the brunt of my questions."

Award: With those budget moves, Squilla wins our "Most Likely To Succeed" award.

BOBBY HENON

The skinny: Henon, the former political director of electricians union Local 98, represents the 6th District in the Northeast. City Hall insiders described Henon as the most assertive of the freshmen, taking on problem landlords and quality-of-life issues.

Highlights: Henon launched the Bad Neighbor Initiative, a campaign that targets problem landlords and neighbors in his district in an effort to bring tax delinquents and city-code violators into compliance. Resorting to in-your-face politics, he promised to haul bad landlords into City Hall, and he did.

Henon also beat the Nutter administration to the punch when he launched a free iPhone application for residents to complain about quality-of-life issues. The city had been trying to come out with a similar smartphone app for 3-1-1 for two years.

Quote: "I had an idea, a vision of what I'd like to accomplish," Henon said, adding that he likes to "find ways to partner up and get things done."

Award: For hauling bad guys onto the Council floor, Henon picks up our "Most Dramatic" prize.

CINDY BASS

The skinny: Bass, a former longtime aide to U.S, Rep. Chaka Fattah, represents the 8th District, which stretches from Northwest to North Philly, including parts of Nicetown, Tioga, Germantown, Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy. Bass has been a strong advocate for the city's parks and recreation and serves as chairman of Council's Committee on Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

Highlights: Soon after taking office, Bass began holding weekly one-on-one meetings with her constituents called "Coffee with the Councilwoman." Residents were able to air their grievances in person at local coffee shops.

Quote: "During the campaign, we said that being accessible is a priority for us," Bass said. "People really want it. If you have people come in and talk about the same issue, you know it's a problem."

Award: Bass has made it a priority to be available to citizens, so "The Friendliest" prize goes to her.

KENYATTA JOHNSON

The skinny: Johnson, a former state representative, represents the 2nd District, which covers parts of South Philadelphia, Point Breeze and Center City. Johnson, a strong ally of state Sen. Anthony Williams, has focused on addressing youth violence. Johnson is best known for his optimism at the start of every Thursday Council session, often greeting members and City Hall visitors with a smile.

Highlights: Shortly after taking office, Johnson formed a task force to examine youth violence and prevention efforts. In April, he and Williams offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the shooting death of a woman in Grays Ferry. And after a man allegedly torched playground equipment at FDR Park, Johnson vowed to give $100,000 toward rebuilding efforts.

Quote: "[In City Council] you are one of 17 members, as opposed to one of 209" in the state House, he said. "You have more of a direct impact. On a micro level, you have more of an opportunity to have your ear to the ground."

Award: Johnson wins the "Best Dressed" prize for his pinstriped suits, usually accented by a royal-red or bold gold-striped tie.

DAVID OH

The skinny: Oh is a Republican at-large member. He is also the minority whip and the first Asian-American to be elected to a political office in Philly.

Highlights: As chairman of the newly created Committee on Global Opportunities and Creative/Innovative Economy, Oh has met with the Chinese ambassador and leaders from South Korea and other countries to discuss bringing international businesses to the city. Oh also sponsored a bill that provides a $2,000-per-year tax credit to businesses that employ veterans.

Quote: Oh was excited to chair a committee that focuses on issues of interest to him. "I didn't expect it," said Oh. "I was a freshman Republican member. I'm at the bottom of the totem pole. To have your own [committee] is to have a vehicle."

Award: For his efforts to attract international businesses, Oh gets the "Global Thinker" prize.

DENNIS O'BRIEN

The skinny: O'Brien, the former speaker of the state House of Representatives, is the other Republican at-large member. He's a longtime advocate for services for those with autism and learning disabilities.

Highlights: O'Brien has continued to advocate for people with autism and learning disabilites in the Council arena. But so far his legislative output has been lower than some colleagues'.

Quote: "We didn't have the vision. We didn't have the inclination frankly, to address autism," O'Brien said during a Council session in March. "But now we can see way into the distance, and we have a long way to go."

Award: O'Brien has been an unwavering voice for people with special needs. The prize for "Biggest Heart" goes to him. n

Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or Ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.

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