When Council convenes for its second-to-last session for the year tomorrow, all eyes will be on Council President Darrell Clarke, who faces his most direct public challenge since he took leadership of the city’s legislative body.
The challenge is this: The President has spent the better part of a year pledging support for a land bank bill that he did not, apparently, want to pass as written. And after a year of keeping his own cards close to his vest, on Thursday he’ll very likely have to show his hand.
Until recently, Clarke appeared to wholeheartedly support the land bank bill, sponsored by 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, and which Clarke signed on as a co-sponsor.
At a national conference on reclaiming vacant land in September, Clarke invited applause for Sanchez’s work on the land bank and thanked land bank supporters for “continuing to push … until we get that land bank legislation passed.”
But with just two sessions left before Council recesses — just enough time, that is, to pass any amendments on a first and second reading — the Council President’s attitude towards the land bank has grown considerably more chilly than when he addressed that crowd.
And now the Council President is facing the increasingly tricky task of explaining why he is spending so much energy rewriting a bill he’d always said he supported.
Indeed, while Clarke had referred to “outstanding issues,” in the past, the Council President gave no public indication that his support had wavered until the bill appeared, much to the surprise of some observers, on the calendar for a hearing in Council’s Committee on Public Property and Public Works.
How exactly that happened remains the subject of speculation: hearings are ultimately approved by the Council President, and when advocates for the bill began demanding a hearing last spring, it was Clarke, not Sanchez, who was seen as standing in the way. (Clarke acknowledged this role to PlanPhilly in May, saying he preferred to wait until fall to take up the issue).
Widespread rumor has it that the committee’s Chairman, 6th District Councilman Bobby Henon, either didn’t ask the president or misunderstood him when his office put in a request for a hearing. Clarke’s office denies this, and Henon declined a request for comment.
Whatever the case, once the hearing was scheduled, Clarke’s office was suddenly busy preparing various amendments to the eight-month-old bill— including amendments that the bill’s main sponsor, Sanchez, has called “deal breakers.”
And even those amendments emerged toward the end of the committee hearing —only after it seemed that Committee Chair Bobby Henon intended to put the bill to a vote. Had Henon held the bill in committee, land bank supporters would presumably have begun to focus their impatience on him.
When they did appear, Clarke’s amendments were circulated and approved so quickly that reporters didn’t see copies until after they were inserted.
Subsequent amendments have made it even less clear where, exactly, the Council President stands on the land bank itself.
The issue at stake is how much and what form of power Council will have over the land bank’s ability to acquire and sell land. Currently, Council members have to approve every sale of public land by the city because the transaction must be approved in the form of a resolution introduced by the District Council member and, by practice, approved unanimously in Council when introduced. In effect, this gives a district council member the power to put a hold on a sale by simply not introducing the resolution.
Sanchez’ bill took out resolutions and gave Council oversight in the form of a re-constituted Vacant Property Review Committee, which is currently composed of representatives of different city agencies and led by a chairman appointed by the Council President. As critics of the current system point out, the Council President currently has a great deal of power over what does and does not appear on the agenda.
Sanchez wanted that committee re-organized so that it would effectively give each district Council member the same approval power as a resolution, but also force each Council member to be answerable to his or her decisions.
Clarke’s amendments not only re-introduced the resolution requirement, but maintained the current VPRC structure, and with it his own proxy chairmanship.
The changes were anathema to land bank’s supporters, but even so, they seemed willing to lose the battle to win the war: getting Council to pass the land bank before it recesses for the year.
But then, as we reported, Clarke began circulating several more amendments late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Eve, which not only preserved his own proxy chairmanship of the VPRC but required Council members to approve not only the sale, but also the acquisition of every piece of land by the land bank — a proposal which land bank supporters had specifically cited before as a deal-breaker.
Whether Clarke will push for those amendments, whether they’re a bargaining chip to negotiate the previous round of amendments, and whether, ultimately Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez will be calling some version of a land bank bill up for a vote on Thursday are all uncertain.
But what will inevitably become more clear on Thursday is where, after all this, the Council President really stands — and whether, when he says he supports a land bank, he really means it.