(Image: Philadelphia City Council)
It's budget season in City Council, and that means it's time for one of City Council to exercise one of their most important functions, which is holding accountable all the various departments and entities that receive public funding. Some Council members are better at this job than others, and some just use it to score political points and special favors. At the Free Library's hearing yesterday, we saw a particularly flagrant example of the latter from 3rd District Councilmember Jannie Blackwell.
Instead of using her oversight powers to talk about actual issues around library hours or staffing or building conditions like some of her colleagues did, Councilmember Blackwell spent her time pressing Library officials to hold two press conferences in her district in the next couple weeks—valuable positive earned media coverage for an incumbent facing a tough primary, as Jake Blumgart notes:
West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell focused her questioning on the timing of press conferences about Rebuild renovation projects in her district, including for Kingsessing Library and Recreation Center and another.
“I need two press conferences, we’d like to have them no later than the end of next week,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell is one of the few district City Council members facing a substantial re-election challenge in the May 21 Democratic primary. Former Fairmount Park Conservancy director Jamie Gauthier is challenging her in the race.
Elected officials using nominally non-partisan government communications to advance their electoral prospects is nothing new, but it's usually a lot less blatant than this. There's just no good reason to be using a budget hearing to finagle this—especially when the clear implication is that the Councilmember is in a position to cut that entity's funding if they don't play ball.
In some places this type of thing is prohibited this close to an election. State lawmakers in Pennsylvania, for instance, are barred from sending constituent mail—funded by taxpayers—within 60 days of an election. They can send email from their official accounts, but only to people who've opted into communications. City Council isn't barred from sending taxpayer-funded mailings all the way through election season, but the mailings have to be clearly non-political and are reviewed before they go out.
Whether it's technically allowed or not, Councilmember Blackwell is more or less telling the Free Library to throw a pep rally for her a little over a month before she faces the voters, and she's using the official leverage of her office to make them do it.
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