Councilmember Jannie Blackwell's Swan Song: Wiping Out Food Trucks at Drexel

(This Council hates food trucks | Photo: WHYY)

(UPDATE: The Drexel food truck ban passed Council on Thursday with only At-Large member Helen Gym voting against it.)

Outgoing 3rd District Councilmember Jannie Blackwell leaves office in just a few weeks, but her lame-duck status hasn't stopped her from having a very productive fall session, where she's attempted to push through a lot of legislative leftovers she couldn't get traction for, or otherwise didn't pursue over the last four years. 

Councilmember Blackwell ended up striking out with a last-minute push to double minimum parking requirements earlier this fall, and abandoned an attempt to rezone this one weird riverfront motel connected to a campaign contributor. She also had a mostly successful run at rezoning several neighborhoods with little to no feedback from residents and property owners, and as her final swan song as a legislator, she's making a last-minute push to ban food trucks and carts from Market Street on Drexel's campus, at the behest of Drexel administration staff who have been pushing this bill for a while now. The bill had been dormant all year, but sprang to life in the last week, presumably due to a push from Drexel. Jake Blumgart reports:

"The relocation would be mandated under a bill banning street vendors from the block of Market that spans between 33rd and 34th streets. Outgoing West Philadelphia Councilmember Jannie Blackwell introduced the bill at the request of the university.

The bill is set for a vote on Thursday, the last full meeting of the term and of Blackwell’s career.  Given the council’s culture of councilmanic prerogative, the ban is nearly certain to become law unless Blackwell pulls the bill. 

Drexel said removing the food trucks from the busy block would “improve public safety and related traffic conditions on Market Street.” The vendors “will be able to provide vending services at other locations around Drexel’s campus,” said Niki Gianakaris, a Drexel spokesperson."

For whatever reason, this City Council class hates food trucks. 10th District Councilmember Brian O'Neill fully banned them from his entire district in Northeast Philly, and Council President Darrell Clarke recently kicked food trucks off their usual corner of Broad and Spring Garden at the behest of landlord Bart Blatstein, only to reverse course after that created some controversy. Clarke also passed an ordinance to make all the Temple food trucks find overnight parking every single night, which was going to massively destabilize the food truck row on campus, but that's gone unenforced.

So there's at least some hope that the Mobile Food Association's petition against the Drexel ban—now past 5,000 signatures—will lead Councilmember Blackwell to pull the bill before tomorrow's hearing, but her office also needs to be hearing directly from opponents of the bill, especially if they live in the 3rd District. Email john.fenton@phila.gov.

Now, Councilmanic Prerogative being what it is, taking the argument straight to Councilmember Blackwell in hopes that she'll pull the plug is definitely the most practical approach. But we shouldn't ever let Prerogative logic break our brains so badly that we're willing to let all the other decision-makers off the hook. 

After all, Blackwell gets only one vote on this bill, and there are 16 other independently-elected members of Council who also get to vote. Nobody has to accept their ridiculous premise that none of the other members have any agency. In fact, it takes 8 other Council members to affirmatively vote for it to pass, so if you live in another district, you're well within your rights to call up your District Councilperson, or any of the At-Large Council people who are supposed to be representing the whole city, and ask them not to cooperate. 

Mayor Kenney also has agency here. We're so late in the session that Kenney is able to pocket-veto any bills he doesn't like just by declining to sign them. Does Mayor Kenney think that on the merits, it's a good idea to ban food trucks from Market Street? What does he think should happen? He alone could decide if he wanted to, and he is expressly given the power to decide with the pocket veto.

A term is a term, and there isn't anything inherently unseemly about using your legislative powers within the time period where you are the designated representative. But some of the bills put forward by Councilmember Blackwell are really pushing the limits of what should be considered acceptable for somebody who was just voted out in a primary. Trying to pass a tranche of 8 rezoning bills was a bad idea, even though the content of some of the bills was pretty decent, since the consequences of rezoning are felt on a long-term timeline. This isn't a process that needs to take years, and it shouldn't be excessively deferential to property owner lobbying, but there should at least be a fair public comment period and a few neighborhood meetings. With the exception of a few remapping bills that had already been kicking around for a while, though, a few neighborhoods just got rezoned at the last minute with basically no meaningful public input. Also, Blackwell's opponent, Jamie Gauthier, campaigned successfully in part on a plan to remap the zoning for the 3rd District, so this was pretty transparently an attempt by Blackwell to head that off. 

The Drexel food truck ban also has no reason to be moving at the very last minute other than the fact that it's a very unpopular move, and Drexel appears to be pushing Councilmember Blackwell to get this done for them during the brief window when she is maximally unaccountable to the voters. Here too, people who might want to weigh in on the bill now aren't going to get a reasonable time period to do so before a final decision is made. It's a complete surprise that it's back on the agenda now, even though it technically went through a committee hearing already. 

Councilmember Blackwell has pulled bills in the past though due to strong public pushback, so make sure to sign the petition and call and email her office if you live in the district. 

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2019-12-11 16:33:27 -0500