From zoning to e-smokes, Council gets down to 2014 business

Posted: January 25, 2014

PHILADELPHIA At a meeting full of new business on everything from banning e-cigarettes to building a skyscraper, City Council on Thursday wrapped up an old debate from the two-year-old rewrite of the zoning code.

This was actually the second time Council had changed the rules for "registered community organizations," the neighborhood and interest groups that must be notified and consulted on building projects launched on their turf.

A year ago, Council approved changes championed by Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, even overriding a mayoral veto of her bill. At the time, Councilman Bill Green predicted that Blackwell's bill would add barriers to building and bring development to a halt.

Last fall, Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a bill to change the rules again, restoring some of the original standards from the zoning-code rewrite.

Blackwell and her supporters said Thursday that Henon's bill favored developers over residents and that gentrification was "at the core of all of this," as she put it.

Henon said RCOs, as the groups are known, "are going to find a clear direction" and should benefit from his bill. The Blackwell bill, he said, was full of "gray areas."

"It was just an ongoing, muddy process," he said.

Henon's bill was approved by a 14-3 vote, with Blackwell and W. Wilson Goode Jr. and Blondell Reynolds Brown voting against.

That's almost identical to the 13-3 vote that overrode Mayor Nutter's veto a year ago.

Also Thursday, at Council's first meeting of the year:

Nutter sent legislation to Council to create a Department of Prisons. The city's prison system has been part of the Department of Human Services, though the jails are run independently of DHS.

The change would elevate the prisons commissioner to the same level as the fire, police, and streets commissioners. The prison chief then would be given the same leeway those officials have to name a management team exempt from civil-service rules.

If approved by Council, the measure would go to the voters for approval as a change to the City Charter, perhaps as early as the May primary.

Councilman David Oh amended his proposal to end the requirement that elected city officials resign from one office to run for another. He said the original legislation would not have included the mayor.

As amended, the legislation would allow future mayors to run without resigning as well. That measure, if approved, also would have to go before voters, likely in May, but would not take effect until 2016, after the next mayoral election.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke introduced five bills, some concerning zoning changes, to clear the way for Comcast to build a second Center City skyscraper.

The cable giant's proposed $1.2 billion tower would be located in Clarke's district.

Green introduced a bill to add electronic cigarettes to the city's ban on indoor smoking in most locations.

So-called e-cigarettes release a vapor, but Green said they should be considered the same as smoking. "Smoking is definitely not something we want to become 'cool' again," he said.

He continues to serve on Council as he awaits state Senate action on his appointment by Gov. Corbett to serve as chairman of the School Reform Commission.

Brown introduced a bill requiring day-care centers to certify with various city agencies their compliance with rules for fire, building, and electrical safety; water quality; and lead paint. "The bottom line is that every center should be inspected for everything every year," she said.

The state is now responsible for inspecting and ensuring the safety of day-care centers.

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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