May 19th | Posted In Policy

#YoungPHLVotes – A Guide to the Ballot Questions – Question #3

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Tuesday, May 20th is primary day, the day to pick your party’s candidates for the general election in November and elect smaller party positions, like committee person. There are also 3 ballot questions this year, and a special election to fill former Councilman Bill Green’s seat.  To help you make an informed decision, YIP is providing the pros and cons on the three ballot questions. For more information on the ballot questions, read The Inquirer’s coverage here.  The following review of Ballot Question #3 was written by YIP Advocacy Committee member Nikki Allen.

Ballot Question #3 asks whether the Home Rule Charter should be amended to give City Council the authority to approve contracts for one year or less, worth $100,000 or more that involve the legal representation of Philadelphians who cannot afford an attorney in certain proceedings.

Background: One of the most commonly known legal rights are your Miranda rights – you know: “you have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” To provide legal representation for Philadelphians who cannot afford an attorney, the City contracts with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, Community Legal Services and the Support for Child Advocates to provide such representation. However, if one of these organizations is already representing the opposing party in the case, the City must appoint an “outside” attorney.

In order to deal with such situations, the Nutter Administration, sought to create a “Conflict Counsel” office, with the authority to hire other counsel. However, members of Council, led by Councilman Dennis O’Brien, believe that this new office would be more concerned with making money than providing legal services. Councilman O’Brien believes that Council should be involved with the process of approving these contracts to ensure that constitutional rights of Philadelphians are not abridged.

Currently, under the Home Rule Charter, Council does not have the authority to approve certain types of contracts and Council approval is not required for contracts if they are for less than one year. This ballot question would allow Council to weigh-in on the process of choosing Conflict Council even if the contract is for less than a year.

Why you should vote YES:

While Council is not ordinarily involved with contracts for one year or less, proponents of this bill believe that the legal representation of some of Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens requires additional oversight. When asked why people should vote “yes”, Councilman O’Brien said: “The countless flaws in the administration’s indigent representation model and the current system leave the city ripe for litigation…. This very narrow charter amendment allows for transparency, inclusiveness, and, most importantly, justice. The administration is purposefully and inexplicably seeking a one year contract to skirt a City Council that is willing to share the burden of implementing a proper model…. This measure will require city council approval for certain contracts for one year or less for the purpose of providing constitutionally mandated legal representation for the indigent.”

Why you should vote NO:

Critics of this bill believe that if Council gets involved in the process of approving these contracts, it will add more red-tape and unnecessary bureaucracy. When established, the Home Rule Charter created a strong executive branch and gave the Mayor broad powers. Council inserting itself into this process that is traditionally in the Mayor’s purview, slowly chips away at those broad powers. Additionally, many critics believe that it will unnecessarily insert politics into the process, with firms and organizations kowtowing to Council in order to win the contract. Other critics have acknowledged the legitimacy of overseeing legal representation contracts – or the flaws in the Nutter administration’s attempt to create a single contract for Conflict Counsel – but believe that amending the City Charter is a bad remedy to the problem.

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  1. Stephen St.Vincent | May 19, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    This isn’t just for conflicts counsel. 99% of parents in dependency proceedings are represented by court-appointed “wheel” attorneys, who would be replaced by such a firm. This affects thousands of parents every year. SCCA, CLS, and the like represent only a tiny fraction of individuals. “Conflicts” counsel are a massively important part of this process.

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