The public comment portion of City Council meetings has always intrigued me. We live in a representative democracy, not a direct one, and so the challenge for the electorate, in the years between elections, is how to keep the ears of the elected. You can petition, you can email. You can comment on Facebook or Twitter or anonymously on PennLive. But there’s really no substitute for showing up warm-blooded in the place where council does its business. You state your name and address, the mayor seated to your right, the councilors fanned out on the dais before you. For a few minutes, you stand in the spotlight of democracy. It’s a beautiful thing.
And a tedious thing, and a beguiling one. The meetings are broadcast on the city’s television station, WHBG-TV 20, and people milk the free airtime. They pontificate. They self-promote. Occasionally, they heckle. Last month, at council’s first legislative session of 2016, a man identifying himself as Keith Lawson, a resident of S. 17th Street, took to the microphone. He was a big guy with a blue-collar aspect: wool hat, wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt over a long-sleeved one.
“I’m glad we got new council members, because I got a complaint about council,” he began. He said he was speaking on behalf of young people, particularly in poor neighborhoods, claiming they never saw council members “except when it’s time to get voted.” Council President Wanda Williams engaged him, and the exchange quickly got testy. Lawson accused her of ignoring residents’ questions. “Excuse me,” Williams interrupted. “I’m not going to be in a debate with you, nor am I going to allow you to stand up here and say that these council members do not respond to you.” Lawson persisted. He wanted council to address the issue he felt was at the root of violence in the city—idle youth, many of whom couldn’t find employment because of drug problems and criminal records. Eventually, Williams concluded by gently inviting the young people he’d been talking with to come address council any time. “OK,” Lawson said. He sat down and folded his arms.
After the meeting, I caught up with Cornelius Johnson, one of four councilors elected last year. We chatted at the sports bar Rookie’s on Derry Street, over wings and beer. “I think a lot of times, especially when people come to the mike, people make blanket statements,” he said. He didn’t take Lawson’s comments personally—he volunteers at the southside Boys and Girls Club, and he has family all over the city, so he didn’t accept the suggestion that councilors were out of touch. “But I think what he’s basically trying to say is, there is a segment of our community that are affected by criminal charges, who need opportunities,” he said. He also understood why Williams “may take it personal”—you can do a lot of work that goes unacknowledged, and still get publicly blasted for not doing enough. “It’s a lot of work to be on City Council,” he said. He was playing it down the middle, respecting the constituent while being sympathetic to his senior colleague.
Johnson grew up on Holly Street, in South Allison Hill. His mother is from Sierra Leone, his father from Jamaica. Perhaps due in part to his background, he has little patience for the “natives-versus-outsiders” dynamic that inflects city politics from time to time. “I’ll take someone who just moved here six months ago and is about moving the city forward over someone who lived here their entire life and doesn’t want to do anything and is completely negative about the city,” he said. He was a member of the first class to complete four years at SciTech High, a specialized public high school for gifted students in the city. He joined the Sigma Beta Club and served on the student council, though he had no thought of entering politics until years later, when he started working for the city.
Among his colleagues on council, Johnson is perhaps the best positioned to understand the day-to-day operations of municipal government. A year after graduating Penn State, with degrees in general science and toxicology, he took a job as Harrisburg’s health officer, inspecting the city’s 400 or so restaurants. One of the things he said he noticed was a “disconnect between citizens and their government.” People were unaware of the programs available to them, like one that would help pay for lead removal. He left, after a little more than a year, to take a position as the health officer at Susquehanna Township. The job came with a raise, but he also saw it as a chance for professional growth. With fewer restaurants and a more stable budget, the township gave him the opportunity to study other parts of government.
Johnson was one of three candidates endorsed by Mayor Eric Papenfuse last April, about a month before the Democratic primary. Explaining his picks, the mayor said council needed “fresh, independent, new voices”; he also specifically asked voters to oust the incumbent, Brad Koplinski. Among other things, he said Koplinski was propping up the council presidency of Williams, whose leadership Papenfuse thought was “problematic” and the “source of the dysfunction on council.” “If you don’t re-elect Brad Koplinski, we get a new council president,” he said. In the primary, voters obliged, by a narrow margin—in the race for three four-year seats, Koplinski came in fourth by only 16 votes. Addressing the results, Papenfuse said he was “elated” that Harrisburg would be getting “new leadership to move the city forward.”
But when it came time to elect a president, it seemed council was content to preserve a piece of the status quo. At a reorganization meeting in January, members nominated Williams, the incumbent president, to keep her post. When it came time to nominate any challengers, no one made a sound. “I don’t put as much emphasis as the rest of the world does on those positions,” Johnson responded, when I asked him about it. Even if the president is the “face of council,” he said, “it’s only a council of seven. Everyone gets one vote.” He would have been open to supporting other nominees, but he was also confident in Williams’ leadership—she “has shown herself to be fair,” he said. In other words, he played that one down the middle, too.
In the general election of November 1968, Harrisburg voters appointed a charter commission to reevaluate the form of their government. For half a century, the city had operated under a “commission” structure run by five co-equal council members. Each member was both a legislator, proposing and passing ordinances as council members do today, and an administrator, directing a particular department in city hall. The arrangement could be cumbersome, especially as government functions became more complex and social problems more pernicious. Councilors’ department assignments were arbitrary; as the commission’s report put it, the electoral process “seldom attracts trained and experienced departmental administrators.”
The commission recommended the city switch to a mayor-council government, popularly known as a “strong mayor” form. Under that structure, council would handle legislation, while the mayor, as an independently elected executive, would manage the city’s day-to-day affairs. Existing council members fretted about the loss of checks and balances, but the commission dismissed such fears. The “risk of continuing to operate with divided, indecisive leadership,” its report said, “far outweighs the risk of an overconcentration of executive power.” Furthermore, the structure preserved an essential role for council—the commission envisioned a “vital, deliberative body, broadly representative of all segments of the population of the city,” which would “keep a close watch” on the executive.
Battles between council and the mayor in the decades since have tested the boundaries of their respective powers. In the 1990s, a group of citizens sued Mayor Stephen Reed over his use of $7 million in proceeds from the sale of the city’s water system. The power to appropriate the money, they said, belonged to City Council. A decade later, council openly challenged Reed by giving themselves the power to appoint directors to the Harrisburg Authority, the financing arm that had borrowed steeply to retrofit the incinerator. Reed sued, saying he had to “protect his essential executive powers” from a “misguided, power-hungry City Council.” The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which sided with Reed, though, by that time, he’d been replaced by the former council president, Linda Thompson. Thompson, too, had notable skirmishes with council, including in 2011, when members tried to outmaneuver her with a 4-3 vote to declare bankruptcy.
In short, some amount of friction between council and the mayor is customary. Sometimes, the disputes are about policy. Other times, they can seem like sport. Jeff Baltimore, another of the council members elected last fall, told me he’d been embarrassed at times to see a public meeting erupt into what seemed like a needless, personal dispute. “I’m not comfortable with other adults seemingly talking disrespectfully to other adults,” he said. “If you’re not gonna respect the person, at least respect the office.”
Baltimore first arrived on council by appointment, after the sudden death of Councilwoman Eugenia Smith in the spring of 2014. Sixteen people applied for her seat; Baltimore ultimately secured it with a tie-breaking vote from Papenfuse. He ran a lackluster campaign last spring, but won handily, perhaps through some combination of an incumbent’s advantage, his eloquence and civility, and his deep roots in the city. His endorsement by Papenfuse likely didn’t hurt, either. While he appreciated the mayor’s support, he told me, he hadn’t sought it, and he wanted to make clear he and the administration weren’t “aligned.”
Baltimore lives on 17th Street, just north of Herr, in the home he grew up in. We spoke there one afternoon last month, in a room adorned with black-and-white photos of family members and famous African-Americans: jazz greats, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson. He described his neighborhood as stable, mostly middle-class, though the population was aging. He recalled how, as a kid, he had roamed freely throughout the city, then reflected, ruefully, that things were “different now”—more territorial, with fistfights replaced by gun battles. This led him to what he saw as his own generation’s failure to pass on the legacy of the Civil Rights era to their children. Young people “don’t feel like they’re a part of any continuum,” he said. “And they are.” He told me he was slow to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, in part, because he didn’t want to be “policed better.” “I want better housing. I want better education. I want better health care,” he said.
Baltimore is a former city employee, having worked in economic development under Mayor Reed. He seems to support most of Papenfuse’s legislative agenda, particularly with respect to his development goals.He was also broadly supportive of the mayor, who he said he hoped would “be a two-termer.” He favored the tax abatement legislation council passed last year, describing it as a tool to attract developers he thinks will inevitably seek the best deal available. He also supports the local services tax hike, an integral part of the 2016 budget, which the new council has reopened. The $2-per-week increase will affect substantially more commuters than residents, which appeals to what, for Baltimore and many other city residents, is an article of faith about non-resident workers. “A lot of people who live outside the city bad-mouth and bash it,” he said. “So hey, you know, if you’re gonna talk trash about us and use our stuff, you should pay for it. You should have skin in the game, too.”
Baltimore had been interested in challenging Williams for the council presidency, but he hadn’t wanted to nominate himself. When I asked him about it, he said he agreed with a reporter who described him as a “reluctant politician.” He isn’t on social media. He doesn’t hold court at the Broad Street Market, and he doesn’t go to church. He didn’t want to discuss the details of his bid for the presidency on the record, but what he did say gave the impression that Williams out-campaigned him and that he wasn’t sure how to lock down fellow members’ votes. The day after the reorganization meeting, he was out with his sister distributing for Meals on Wheels. “I just don’t feel like a politician,” he told her. “She said, ‘Jeff, shut up, you’re a politician,’” he said. “‘You’re just really not all that good at it.’”
At a briefing in early January, Papenfuse outlined his vision for 2016 in three adjectives: he wanted Harrisburg to be “safer, more self-determined and growing.” The middle term was the most subtle. “Self-determined” was a reference to two forms of long-range planning the city will formally revisit this year—the comprehensive plan, which will guide development and capital projects, and the financial recovery plan, which was passed in late 2013 and is now scheduled to be amended. Papenfuse spoke of the city “seizing its destiny” and exiting Act 47, the state oversight program, but he also acknowledged the process would take years.
Whatever the timeline, the mayor’s relationship with council will be critical to his achieving this goal. Last year, council members largely concurred with Papenfuse’s assessment that the state receiver’s plan for the city was based on inaccurate financial projections. “Right away, in year one, we felt that the revenue projections that the receiver’s team had come up with were off,” said Ben Allatt, council’s budget and finance committee chair. In December, after rejecting cuts proposed by Koplinski, council passed a budget that will require nearly $3 million in new revenue from the local services tax hike. But it will fall to the new council to officially adopt the hike, as well as to vet the adjustments to the recovery plan.
State oversight of the city is largely a bureaucratic function. But it also involves state legislators, to the extent that they set the rules on local taxing authority and appropriate $4.5 million each year to pay for city fire services. For what it’s worth, council has two members with some insight on the Capitol. One is Allatt, whose partner works for the House Republican caucus, in the office of former Majority Whip Stan Saylor. Allatt said he is friendly with Saylor, with whom he will occasionally go back and forth on issues relevant to the city. “It’s an uphill battle, because you have to communicate the needs of an urban community to a legislature that the majority of them are not from an urban community,” he told me. Allatt was elected in 2013, having gotten interested in city politics after being, as he put it, “really unimpressed” with Mayor Thompson. (When it comes to Papenfuse, he said, “I think I’ve been critical where it’s been called for to be critical, and I’ve been supportive where it’s been the right thing to be supportive.”)
The other is Westburn Majors, the third new council member, along with Johnson and Baltimore, whom Papenfuse endorsed last spring. When he ran for office, Majors worked for Gmerek Government Relations, a downtown lobbying firm. (He is now the director of legislative affairs at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.) Like Johnson and Baltimore, he took an arm’s-length view of the endorsement. He was appreciative, but he certainly didn’t feel he was part of a mayoral “slate,” a term he felt was too reminiscent of the “Reed team” that Papenfuse’s predecessor would traditionally endorse for council. “I don’t think folks are real supportive of slates and teams anymore,” he said. “But I think now we actually have a council that is independent of the mayor. And that doesn’t mean that you’re against the mayor. It means, look, we’re gonna vet our own issues. If things that the mayor brings down to council are right, people will support it.”
Majors grew up on Market Street, across from the former site of Bishop McDevitt, the Catholic high school he would later attend. As a kid, he said, he was a “political junkie.” He went to Lincoln University in Chester County, majoring in sociology and political science, and later to Penn State for a master’s in public administration. Before he got the job at Gmerek, he had a notion that lobbying would be something like what was portrayed in the film “Thank You For Smoking.” In fact, he said, it wound up much less glamorous. “There’s a lot of research and attending committee meetings,” he said. “And you’ve got to have a decent pair of shoes up there, because of the cobblestone. The little flashy shoes—like, no. Get something with a decent sole.”
With the hearings on the reopened city budget approaching, Majors didn’t quite want to tip his hand. He was supportive of the local services tax hike in principle, though he said he wanted assurances it would really be used for services, and not simply to cover salaries and pensions. Like Johnson and Baltimore, he seemed to be waiting to form his opinions at the hearings in the weeks to come. None of the three had run on specific legislative promises—a fact reflected in the mayor’s endorsements, which focused largely on the candidates’ experience and personal biographies.
If, as Papenfuse has suggested, this is going to be a year of self-determination, how far does that concept extend? City council, as the charter commission recognized 50 years ago, was the venue best equipped to open government to the citizenry. But even if the members are “broadly representative” of residents, residents must still make their concerns known. Majors addressed this topic at one point, as we discussed disparities in wealth and investment across different neighborhoods.
“The developers and the folks that are trying to get plans through planning or zoning, they’re coming and they’re going to speak their case,” he said. “So we need residents that don’t feel like they’re getting enough services to come out and speak. Write a letter. Reach out to council members. And, you know, let your voice be heard.”