Is Council's sergeant-at-arms still necessary?

Sergeant-at-arms David Rosario is the top man in a five-person unit that's tasked with keeping order in Council chambers.
Sergeant-at-arms David Rosario is the top man in a five-person unit that's tasked with keeping order in Council chambers. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 17, 2012

NOT THAT long ago, it wasn't unheard of for City Council members to come to blows or for protesters to be daringly disruptive.

Never far behind, standing at the corners of Council chambers, is the sergeant-at-arms and his assistants, whose major responsibility is to maintain order.

Like when Mark Segal, a renowned gay-rights activist who now publishes the Philadelphia Gay News, rushed past the gates onto the Council floor to take over Council President George X. Schwartz's chair in the 1970s.

Or in 1981, when Councilmen John Street and Francis Rafferty rolled around on the Council floor in what has become one of the legislative body's most infamous brawls.

In both cases, the sergeant-at-arms staff broke up the disruption.

But that kind of chaos has cooled. The only recent headlines about a sergeant-at-arms came after he and a Council receptionist were busted for allegedly driving drunk in city cars.

That incident spotlighted the sergeant-at-arms operation. These relatively low-paid workers, who usually get the job through a political connection, are a longstanding part of the Council president's staff.

Beyond keeping order during meetings, the five members of the sergeant-at-arms unit - whose combined salaries total $160,000 - retrieve Council members for sessions, provide security checks, offer messenger services, move furniture and drive Council members' cars.

Still, given that violence in Council has waned and budgets are tight - is the sergeant-at-arms needed?

"In these times, when everybody is trying to cut costs of government, it makes sense to think about [it]," said Zack Stalberg, president of political watchdog group Committee of Seventy.

"I can see the case for a couple of permanent security people who know the players," he said. "I think Council should take a look as to whether they need five [sergeants-at-arms]. This incident is a good reason for the Council president to take a look at the cost and the need."

Council currently has one sergeant-at-arms, David Rosario; one deputy sergeant-at-arms, Willie Bell; two assistant sergeants-at-arms, Shumpert Caldwell and David Oates Jr.; and an intern, William Robinson. Their salaries range from $48,200 for Rosario to $15,600 for Robinson. Requests to interview the sergeants were declined.

"They are the office managers for the floor," said William Rosenberg, a Drexel University political science professor. "If [Council] only had one, and three [Council members] aren't [present for a hearing], what would you do? Just having one person [to get Council members] would not be adequate. They're really support personnel needed to make sure operations are running [smoothly], the rules for that chamber are followed for decorum [and] disruptive people are removed."

Civil-affairs police officers are present for weekly sessions, committee hearings and at Council's request, said police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers. Additionally, on session days, private security guards are stationed at both ends of a hall that leads to Council's chambers to check visitors through metal detectors.

"I find them to be helpful," said Councilman Jim Kenney. Philadelphia City Council "is the only body that I'm aware of where the public is that close to you. During some of these battles, it gets a little scary."

Council President Darrell Clarke fired Rodney Williams, 42, an assistant sergeant-at-arms, and receptionist Robin Jones, 50, in September after they were charged with DUIs. The two had no permission to take out the city cars. Last week Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield ordered Williams to stand trial on Nov. 14 and Jones on Dec. 12.

To get a patronage sergeant-at-arms job, it helps to know someone who's politically connected.

"Every sergeant-at-arms had a political godfather who worked in Council," said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who worked as a sergeant-at-arms from the mid-1970s into the 1980s.

Brady was a Democratic committeeman and when he lost his job as a carpenter, then-Council president Schwartz hired him as sergeant-at-arms. Brady helped break up the Street-Rafferty fight, and he carried Segal out of Council's chambers.

Williams, the recently fired sergeant-at-arms, was Sheriff Jewel Williams' nephew. Kenney said he sponsored Caldwell. Sources said Bell was sponsored by George Brooks, a ward leader in Clarke's district, Rosario by former ward leader Carlos Matos and Oates by late Councilman David Cohen.

Most legislative bodies, both local and state, have sergeants-at-arms.

"It's a part of a function that happens in a legislative body," Clarke said. "This particular sergeant-at-arms probably has a more diverse level of responsibility than most."

Brady said Council's sergeant-at-arms unit is "still a good thing."

The size of the sergeant-at-arms operation varies in other cities. Baltimore City Council has a community liaison who takes on the responsibilities of a sergeant-at-arms managing the floor during Council meetings, said Lester Davis, spokesman for the Baltimore council president. That person's salary is $43,638.

In Pittsburgh, a police officer is assigned to maintain order during City Council meetings.

Chicago's City Council has one sergeant-at-arms and four assistant sergeants-at-arms with collective salaries of $371,688. The highest salary is $91,980, and the lowest is $59,688.


Contact Jan Ransom at ransomj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5218. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Read her blog at PhillyClout.com.

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