If the three-minute testimony allowed to each member of the public during the comment period in City Council meetings each week can be regarded as an art form, then Robert Taylor should be regarded as Philadelphia’s most prolific artist. Taylor, president of Transport Workers Union Local 700 for the past 25 years and a libertarian, tests the limits of the form, quoting liberally from thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Gandhi as he takes on the legislative proposals of the day.
At Council’s last meeting of the fall session yesterday, he testified regarding a bill authorizing the city’s director of finance to transfer nearly $2 million in appropriations within the Water Fund.
“I don’t oppose the bill itself,” Taylor began, “but I do oppose anything that may funnel any fluoride into our water supply.”
He went on to quote a Harvard University study that suggests that intense overexposure to fluoride may adversely affect neurological development in children, asked that the fluoride content of Philadelphia’s water supply be reduced to zero, and then sought to pass out informational DVDs to each member of City Council. The bill later passed.
More commonly, Taylor’s testimonial muse is parking — specifically, the residential-permit-parking regulations frequently enacted by Council ordinance. Taylor says these ordinances are taken too lightly, rarely generating debate among Council members, even though they can “lead to a loss of liberty.” Taylor says he wasn’t interested in the parking issue until about a year and a half ago, when 32 traffic-ticket delinquents were arrested in the middle of a single night and forced into court in the morning.
“If you’re going to arrest people — I don’t care if it’s parking regulations or whatever — that, to me, makes it a serious event,” Taylor says.
What he wants is a transparent process. The bills are supposed to require signatures from at least 51 percent of residents on a given block before being brought for a vote, but Taylor points out that those petitions aren’t posted online and there’s no clear process for appeals. First District Councilman Mark Squilla recently introduced a bill that would require signatures from 70 percent of residents, but Taylor says that proposal misses the point.
“If there’s no way for the public to examine, review or look at the process,” Taylor says, “it doesn’t matter what the percentage is.”
And though City Council meetings, with their allotted time for public comment, are supposed to provide that transparent process, Taylor finds them lacking, too.
“They suspend their rules far too often, over minor topics, without explanation. And I don’t think that the rules should be suspended unless there’s a real reason for it. But they do it as a matter-of-fact way of proceeding,” Taylor says.
That’s true. Almost every bill or resolution introduced in Council is accompanied by a request for rules suspension, which allows Council to consider legislation more quickly. Taylor says he’s open to hearing a rationale for enacting permit-parking regulations, but that he’s just not hearing it.
“Maybe it’s a good reason, maybe it’s a bad reason, but mostly what we get is no reason at all,” he says.
Beyond any specific proposal, though, Taylor says City Council members are simply too concerned with unanimity, when they should be concerned with conducting an “honest debate” in the service of the public.
“The city of Philadelphia is founded on principles of liberty — under William Penn and the Declaration of Independence, birthplace of liberty and all that — and hey, rah rah! I’m for that,” Taylor says. “When I look at people being taken away at 4 o’clock in the morning, I’m not for that.”
Of City Council, he adds, “They like harmony too much. But liberty — freedom — is supposed to be an animated contest.”