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Pew Study: Philadelphia City Council has Longer Tenures, Fewer First-Termers Compared With Other Cities

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A new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative finds that the members of the Philadelphia City Council have served longer, on average, than their counterparts in any of 14 other major cities including the nation's 10 largest.

With an average tenure of 15.5 years in office as of the end of 2010, the council is Philadelphia's longest-serving in at least six decades. The council also had one of the lowest percentages of first-term members of any of the cities studied.

The report, City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities: Who Holds Office, How Long They Serve, and How Much It All Costs, compares the 15 city councils in a number of ways that can be quantified, including council budgets, staffing, salaries, certain electoral conditions, tenure and the representation of historically underrepresented groups.

“Relative to the other cities, Philadelphia's council is well-paid and well-staffed, although it is not the highest-paid or most-staffed,” said Thomas Ginsberg, project manager of the Philadelphia Research Initiative and the primary author of the report. “Philadelphia's council members have more weeks without scheduled sessions than their counterparts elsewhere, are more likely to use city-owned cars and are among the few who must give up their seats to run for other elective office.”

The cities included in the report, in addition to Philadelphia, are Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose and Washington. Three other cities—Denver, Nashville and San Francisco—were included in some of the cost comparisons because they, like Philadelphia, have consolidated city/county governments. A PDF of the report and an interactive Web graphic that allows users to compare councils are available.

This research was conducted on the heels of a recession that has led many cities to cut their municipal budgets. City councils were heavily involved in those decisions, and councils' own spending levels have come under increased scrutiny. And the cities are about to engage in the once-a-decade council redistricting process that will define the parameters of local political representation for the next 10 years.

One reason that Philadelphia has the longest-serving council is the absence of term limits. Eight of the 15 cities in the study, including New York and Los Angeles, have term limits for council, limiting members to no more than 12 years in office, less in some cases.

Philadelphia and all of the other cities studied except Detroit, Houston, New York and San Diego have elections this year at which all or some council seats will be on the ballot. In Philadelphia, all of the seats are up for election, and four veteran members—including Council President Anna Verna, a 35-year incumbent and longest-serving council member since at least 1920, have decided not to seek new terms.

Among the other key findings of the 15-city study are these:

  • The Los Angeles City Council spends the most per seat on itself, about $1.7 million, and Pittsburgh the least, about $226,000. The 15 councils cost local tax-payers a median of about $607,000 per member this past year, the biggest part of which was salaries and benefits for staff and members. The Philadelphia City Council's 2011 budget for staff salaries, employee benefits and operations is roughly $1.1 million per member, sixth highest among the cities. Philadelphia has one council employee (including members) for every 7,900 residents compared with 1 for 13,500 across all the cities. Among six cities with consolidated city/county functions, Philadelphia has the second-highest cost per seat and is the third most-expensive on cost per resident.
  • Detroit's council consumes 1.01 percent of city general-fund spending, the largest share among the cities studied. New York's 0.10 percent is the lowest. Across all 15 cities, the median is 0.46 percent. That share changed little through the recession (fiscal 2008 to 2011) for many of the cities including Philadelphia, which is at 0.50 percent. After inflation, seven of the councils reduced their own budgets during the period, led by Phoenix's 33 percent cut, while seven recorded increases.
  • Los Angeles has the highest average salaries, $178,789, and San Antonio has the lowest, a maximum of only $1,400 per member. The average council salary in Philadelphia is $121,107, fourth highest out of 15.
  • As for historically under-represented groups, most of the cities have about the same percentage of blacks in council as in their general populations; in Philadelphia, blacks make up 43 percent of the population and 41 percent of the council. Philadelphia has the second-highest proportion of women in council, at 41 percent. Dallas has the highest, 47 percent, while Los Angeles is lowest at 13 percent. Hispanics and Asians have smaller shares of council seats compared to populations in most of the cities.
  • Philadelphia City Council has the most weeks during which no hearings or sessions appear on its official calendar—12 weeks during a typical summer—although many members continue to work during that period. In contrast, Houston, officially a part-time panel, schedules some type of council business every week of the year, although often only partial days.

About the Report

City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities was written by Thomas Ginsberg, project manager of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, with the assistance of senior associate Claire Shubik-Richards and staff at the Pew Center on the States. The report is limited to the parameters described above, as well as other measurable factors. It does not, for instance, look at such items as voting records of council members, nor does it attempt to measure the political effectiveness of individual members or any of the councils as a whole.         

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