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March 23, 2023

Proposal for public safety director to appear on ballot after City Council overrides mayor's veto

Jim Kenney vetoed legislation to put the question to voters in the May 16 election, but councilmembers overrode him unanimously

Government Legislation
Public Safety Director Veto Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

Mayor Jim Kenney vetoed legislation that would put a proposal for a cabinet-level government office of public safety on the May primary ballot. But City Council voted unanimously to override his veto during Thursday's meeting.

In a political skirmish Thursday, Mayor Jim Kenney vetoed legislation that would lay the groundwork for a cabinet-level government office to oversee public safety, but City Council swiftly overrode him.

The bill, introduced by Council President Darrell Clarke, would establish the Office of Chief Public Safety Director — if a majority of voters approves the idea in the upcoming primary election. The appointee would be responsible for coordinating the deployment of resources within the city's police, fire, prisons, recreation and emergency services departments.

After its introduction in February, the legislation was passed unanimously by City Council and sent to Kenney's desk for approval so it could be placed on the ballot for voters in time for the May 16 primary election. The legislation requires a change to the city's Home Rule Charter, a document that defines the power and structure of city government. 

"My administration agrees that the safety of all Philadelphians is of the utmost importance," Kenney wrote in a letter to City Council. "However, we do not feel a Charter change of this magnitude with highly specific provisions about qualifications, compensation and impacted departments should be moved forward on such an expedited timeline."

City Council quickly responded during Thursday’s scheduled meeting, voting unanimously to override Kenney’s veto and put the proposal on the ballot for voters in the primary election. Overriding the mayor’s veto requires a two-thirds vote by City Council, and Kenney’s disapproval did not convince any of the councilmembers to switch their vote.

The mayor argued that, according to the Home Rule Charter, the city's managing director already has many of the responsibilities proposed for the public safety director in the legislation, and that approving the bill without that consideration could lead to a "more complication reporting structure" among city agencies, rather than streamlining the process. 

Kenney continued that his administration does not believe City Council has done its "due diligence" in assessing whether the new public safety director would be an effective tool for his administration or future administrations. 

Kenney's administration expressed similar concerns while the bill was still being considered, asking for City Council to delay its passage in order for city officials to study its potential effects.

If the ballot question is approved by voters, the public safety director would guide city agencies through safety-related policies and provide budget consulting. The position would oversee security in city-owned buildings and develop security contracts for the city and the School District of Philadelphia. 

The director would also maintain relationships with civic organizations, businesses, schools, court offices and emergency services in other jurisdictions. One of the highest-ranking members of the administration, the public safety director would be on par with the city finance director and managing director.

The position is modeled on similar offices in cities like Newark, Chicago and Columbus. In order to craft the bill, councilmembers took several trips to observe the ways those areas are grappling with gun violence. 

"We should be treating gun violence in our neighborhoods in the way that we're treating COVID, in the sense that we're mobilizing all the resources we have," Councilmember Jamie Gauthier told the Inquirer. "If we're only thinking about gun violence as a police enforcement issue, we are losing the ability to bring so many more resources to the issue." 

Even if the proposal is approved by voters in May, it is likely that the first public safety director would not be appointed until the next mayor takes office in 2024. The mayoral race remains crowded with 12 candidates still in the running. 

The person who eventually succeeds Kenney will be tasked with improving the city's response to crime and gun violence. Though homicides dropped by 8% in 2022, they were falling from the record-high 562 homicides recorded in 2021. The number of non-fatal shootings remained steady.