Derek Green is a former city council employee and a current at-large Philadelphia councilman. We explore some of the quirky council traditions and the more heated public comments of the last year.
Q: I am shocked to learn that for Philadelphia city council members, attendance is not mandatory. People can vote on bills and resolutions despite having left a meeting. How do you feel about this practice?
A: That is something that’s been allowed over the years in order to record your vote on a matter. I think it gives an opportunity for someone to leave their vote based on the fact they reviewed what’s coming up for a vote and they support the issue and feel comfortable in letting their vote be reflected on the record.
Q: What if someone amends a bill midway through the meeting? Are absentees obligated to vote yes on that, even if it’s a terrible idea?
A: If they leave their vote as aye on all bills and resolutions, that is their vote. If they have a concern, that is something that more likely than not, they will not record their vote in that regard. I think once you become an elected official, your vote is one of your most important things. You need to be judicious in how you give your vote on matters.
Q: Because of the way the chamber is set up, council members have their desks facing away from the lectern for public comment. And I have seen instances where council members are either not in their seats or are facing away from the speaker. I have not personally seen you ignoring commenters, but in general, do you think this behavior is disrespectful? And if so, do I need to come in there and start confiscating cell phones?
A: Whenever we go to public comment, I always turn my chair toward the speaker. I think it’s important to listen to what people have to say. There are times when you are in a session, sometimes you may have a relative or family member contact you with an emergency. Or there can be times you’re trying to deal with some legislation and getting information. I don’t know what my colleagues may be looking at on their phones, so I can’t speak for them.
Q: I want to highlight one oddity of the Philadelphia council proceedings. To introduce legislation, the clerk physically unrolls printed legislation after a courier walks it from a council member’s desk to the front. I think I speak for everyone when I say: do you guys not have e-mail?
A: Yes, we do have e-mail. However, there are certain things that are done ritualistically. This is a practice that has occurred over the years. In years past, a resolution or a bill that was being circulated to other members of council used to be delivered to that office. Over time that moved from being done physically to being done electronically. But part of the dynamics of city council has been the process where the document that actually has the written language is presented from the sergeant at arms to the chief clerk.
Q: This past fall, you and other council members sponsored a resolution to name a street after former Mayor Wilson Goode. However, Mayor Goode had one major blemish on his record: in May 1985, a bomb was dropped during a police operation to remove a militant group S.W.A.T.-style. Several people were incredulous that a street would have Wilson Goode’s name on it. How extensively had you considered this reaction before it hit the council floor?
A: We have a number of prominent people in the history of this country that–we’re having this debate right now. Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, which became the United Nations, has done a lot to promote peace. But also, he had very strong racial views. These historical figures had perspectives, have taken measures and done things to demonstrate leadership, but have also done other things that causes concern.
Q: The difference between the Wilson Goode street naming and the others you mentioned is that the debate in the other cases is whether to remove names from public structures where the people have not lived up to our modern expectations of what morality and racial justice are. In your case, you were reverse engineering it. You were taking someone with an imperfect record and then elevating them.
A: You also have those who say we should not remove other people who have been elevated because the full context of what they’ve done has not been debated. You have some who are adamant in saying, “this is part of our history and we cannot remove our history.”
Follow Councilman Derek Green on Twitter: @CouncilmanDerek