(For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)
“Is there any new business?” city council president Harold Miller asked from his seat – actually, it was more like a throne – overlooking the large chamber in which Philadelphia’s city council conducted its official business.
His question elicited no response.
“Motion to adjourn?” he asked.
“So moved,” a voice called out from below.
“Do I hear a second?” Miller asked.
“I second the motion,” another voice responded.
“Then I declare the May 29 meeting of this council to be adjourned. Our next meeting will be on Thursday, June 6 at ten o’clock in this chamber.”
With that, he rapped his gavel twice and the people gathered in the chamber – council members and staff, Ed and Larry from Norbert’s staff, the press, and spectators – rose from their seats.
This was the final council meeting before the legal deadline of May 30 to pass a city budget. During the ninety-minute session, council had honored six high school seniors who were about to graduate without missing a single day of school in thirteen years; commended the residents of the 1300 block of Tasker Street for their day-long “community clean-up;” and passed resolutions honoring a minister for thirty years of service to his flock and declaring the week of July 13 “Philadelphia soft pretzel week.” It also enacted an ordinance providing for stop signs at four busy intersections and another ordinance endorsing the city’s application for federal community development funds.
But council did not pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. It did not vote on a budget. In fact, it did not even discuss that budget – nor did it do so in the ten-minute preparatory meeting that council members held in their caucus room right before the official meeting began. In so doing, it became the first Philadelphia council in more than fifty years to fail to pass a budget by the legal deadline.
A local radio reporter greeted council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella outside council’s chamber immediately after the meeting.
“Councilwoman Amordella, why didn’t council pass a budget today?”
“We haven’t worked out all of our issues with the mayor yet.”
“Would you say there are a lot of those issues or just a few?”
“Just a few, but one of them is certainly the revenue gap of more than $800 million between what the mayor says we can count on from the state and what the governor says he’s giving us.”
“But hasn’t council routinely passed budgets in the past with state funding still unresolved and then addressed any discrepancies with amended budget ordinances in the fall?”
“It would be irresponsible of us to do that, and this council will not act irresponsibly.”
“But you did it two years ago, and the year before that, and two years before that.”
Recognizing the undeniable accuracy of the reporter’s assertions, Amordella said nothing.
Amordella again chose silence, so the reporter had little choice but to change the subject.
“Is there any truth to reports that the major stumbling block to a budget deal between council and the mayor is his continued employment of Shaniqua Watson as streets commissioner and not the questions surrounding state funding?”
“I don’t know where you get such misinformation.”
“Does that mean it’s not the problem?”
“It means I don’t know where you get this stuff,” Amordella replied.
“Will council take its three-month summer vacation if a budget isn’t passed?”
“It’s not a vacation, young lady, it’s a recess, and council members work just as hard during our recess as we do when council is in session.”
“On what, councilwoman?”
“We meet with constituents, provide constituent service, and work on legislation for the fall session. We’re hard at work the entire time.”
“As you know, councilwoman, last year the Post visited council’s offices every day during the three-month vacation…”
“Recess,” Amordella interrupted.
“Yes, recess,” the reporter continued. “And it found council members in city hall only about thirty percent of the time.”
“You don’t need to be in the building to be working on council business.”
“Like writing legislation?” the reporter asked. “They don’t need to be in their offices to write legislation?”
“Exactly,” Amordella replied.
“Councilwoman, according to council’s own records, eight of council’s seventeen members haven’t been the primary author of any legislation at all since this session began in January. Are you suggesting that these members are among those working on legislation for the fall?”
“Especially them, yes. They have to make up for lost time.”
“Councilwoman, the city controller has indicated that he’s going to direct the city’s personnel department to withhold the paychecks of council members until you pass a budget. What’s your reaction to that?”
“First of all, he can’t do that during the current fiscal year, which still has another month to go. Second of all, if he does, we may never get a budget, because if we’re not getting paid, we can’t very well be expected to work, can we?”
“Are you suggesting that under such circumstances, council might consider walking off the job?” the reporter asked.
“That would be an option, yes,” Amordella responded.
“Do you mean council could go on strike?”
“I wouldn’t call it that.”
“What would you call it?”
“I would say we could conceivably find ourselves walking off the job.”
“And that’s not a strike?”
“Calling it a strike would not be an inappropriate way of describing it.”
“What about your constituents?”
“What about them?”
“Don’t you think your constituents would be unhappy if the entire legislative branch of their city’s government went on strike?”
“I’m sure our constituents believe that council should be paid for its work, and I’m confident they would support us.”
“Even if not having a budget results in closing city recreation centers, pools, libraries, health centers, and many other city programs and laying off hundreds or even thousands of city employees?”
“I’m confident that our constituents would walk in solidarity with us on this matter. This is, after all, a labor town, and the seventeen members of council are laborers.”
“With salaries of $105,000 a year, a personal staff of four to six people, fully paid health care benefits, large pensions, and city cars, you consider yourselves laborers?”
“Absolutely. We’re laborers, just like our constituents.”
(continued next Sunday)