It took much longer than expected, but City Council member Bobby Henon eventually resigned.
Last November, Henon was found guilty of bribery and honest services fraud alongside his political boss, John Dougherty – the former leader of IBEW Local 98, the electricians union – in what a juror said. called “a real lesson in Philadelphia civics and how Philadelphia government works.” .”
Henon and Dougherty framed their legal fight as a David (pugnacious union leader) vs. Goliath (politically motivated federal prosecutors) fight and described their relationship as nothing out of the ordinary for a city councilman and union boss. But the jurors, who in court heard the wiretaps one after the other, disagreed.
In the end, the $70,000 a year Henon received from Local 98 proved difficult to explain, especially when Henon, who said the sum was his salary as an electrician, was unable to to provide proof of the electrical work carried out.
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We can only hope that Henon’s absentee electrician work will finally inspire his former Board colleagues to restrict outside employment for members of that body in the future. With a salary of over $130,000 a year, board members don’t need to risk the conflicts of interest that can come from moonlighting elsewhere.
Now comes the task of replacing Henon — and with it, a chance for Philadelphia’s political establishment to begin changing the way it does business.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke has the authority to schedule a special election to replace Henon, and the city charter leaves the date up to his discretion. Of course, if Henon himself had done the right thing and stepped down early, his replacement might already be in place and able to contribute to legislative issues like the redistricting debate.
Although that possibility was eliminated by Henon’s decision to retain his seat for two months after his conviction, Clarke can ensure that Henon voters in the 6th District do not go too long without representation. Although the Home Rule Charter allows the President of the Council to choose when special elections are held, it is essential that Clarke prioritizes this measure by scheduling it no later than the May primary, instead of wait for the general elections.
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It is also important that the process of finding Henon’s successor offers more transparency than in previous special elections. Currently, the Democratic City Committee selects replacements by summoning ward leaders, who in the past have sometimes chosen candidates from their own ranks.
The opacity of the selection process concentrates the power to choose who represents the approximately 160,000 inhabitants of the district of Henon in very few hands. “The insider endemic,” as state Rep. Chris Rabb once dubbed special elections, can lead to corruption. Look no further than the embattled 190th District, where in 2021 the state’s fourth representative in three years was chosen by special election following the resignations of Vanessa Lowery Brown, who resigned after being accused of corruption, and Movita Johnson-Harrell, who left office after being accused of stealing more than $500,000 from a charity she founded.
It is crucial that more voices are added to the conversation. One solution might be to include every member of the elected committee in the 6th district, not just the ward leaders, who oversee special elections (and who are not required by law to live in the district in question). Although still part of the political machine, committee members are often on the ground in their neighborhoods and have a good idea of what their communities need most.
The Democratic City Committee grants broad autonomy to neighborhood leaders in the organization of special elections. It is essential that these leaders broaden conversations about potential candidates to include committee members. Although this may happen informally now, codifying this type of dialogue would ensure broader perspectives and strengthen the democratic process.
If Philadelphia is to break the reputation for corruption we’ve earned after seeing at least 20 elected officials convicted of serious crimes over the past 40 years, transparency and collaboration are key. By deciding when and how Henon’s replacement is selected, city and political leaders have the opportunity to do things differently. They should take it.