Council quorum rare in budget hearings

Posted: April 10, 2014

AS COUNCIL Majority Leader Curtis Jones Jr. began yesterday's budget hearing on the City Controller's Office, he was joined in Council chambers by only four of his 15 colleagues.

Some would wander in later, and some would leave. But at no point during Controller Alan Butkovitz's testimony was a majority of Council members present.

Unless, that is, you ask City Council.

Council now has 16 members, due to a vacancy, but a quorum still requires nine to be present. That's a rare sight during the budget hearings, but the meetings can go on even with only a few members present so long as no one calls for a quorum check or vote.

"When Council convenes with a quorum present, it is technically true that a quorum is present throughout the meeting unless indicated otherwise on the record by a member or during a vote attempt," Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clarke, wrote in an email.

The two-month gauntlet of department-by-department budget hearings is actually one long session of the Committee of the Whole, which includes all of the lawmakers. Because a majority only needed to be present at the beginning of the meeting, which was technically three weeks ago, a quorum is officially present until a member says something about all the empty seats.

If that happens, the show stops.

Council Clerk Michael Decker said that if there is a quorum check and fewer than nine are present, the meeting must pause until a majority shows up. Otherwise, he said, quorums need only be present for votes.

"If there is at any point a lack of a quorum, it's up to the Council members to suggest that there is a lack of a quorum," Decker said.

On Monday, Council posted online a document laying out procedures for this year's budget hearings. It said that a quorum "is expected to be in Council Chambers at all times that such Committee is in session."

Roh said yesterday, however, that the wording was incorrect due to a staff error, and that a majority is not required to be physically present for the hearings.

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, policy director for the Committee of Seventy good-government group, said Philly's practices about when members need to be present are similar to councils in other cities. But, she said, Council ought to be more present during the budget hearings.

"What's troubling about the lack of a quorum during budget hearings is that arguably Council's most important legislative responsibility is its power of the purse," Kaplan said. "When Council members come and go at random, talk on cellphones during hearings or are absent altogether, it sends a message to the public that they have better things to do with their time."

Attendance during budget hearings has been better under Clarke than it was in the later years of Ana Verna's run as the body's leader. Still, quorums are rarely present, with the exception of hearings on high-profile departments.

Clarke said yesterday that he understands that members have other responsibilities.

"There's other business to do. You can't just sit here all day," said Clarke, who is present at almost all the meetings but was absent yesterday morning. "I wasn't here early because I was up meeting with HUD officials, hoping that we're going to get a $30 million HUD grant. I needed to be there."

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

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