Councilman Mark Squilla has emerged as one of the more influential of the six new members of City Council — a critical voice during the recent budget battle, and one that helped convince Council to delay the Actual Value Initiative — a controversial property tax reform measure.
“It was a good learning experience,” said the freshman councilman, who represents the city’s 1st Councilmanic District. “We learned how to compromise and come up with different solutions from maybe something the administration thought would work.”
Squilla is a member of what council members jokingly call the “serious six.” The six members who took their seats in January and were immediately swept up in an epic budget battle, the perfect storm of tax reform, education crisis and politics.
Looking back — nearly everyone agrees that the new members rose to the task.
“They’ve earned their title,” said Majority Leader Curtis Jones, at the end of Council’s spring session. “They were here to stand up for their core convictions.”
According to Squilla, the group has been energized by a common desire to change the status quo.
“Everybody is really serious about making a difference,” he said. “That energizes some of the other council members that have been there for a long time. We have the willingness to make tough decisions.”
None were as visible at Squilla during the debate, though he downplays his role.
“I didn’t think we were getting all the information that was necessary,” he said. “Once some of the other members started seeing that, they also started saying ‘wait a second.’”
His colleague Councilman David Oh put it this way: “What he did, in an effort, I think, to get more information faster was say, ‘hey look if you don’t get it to us, this is what is going to happen — we’re going to delay it.’”
While Squilla stood squarely in opposition to the mayor’s proposal, and frequently said he thought the move to AVI was premature, comparing it to diving into a pool when you couldn’t see the bottom. His criticism of the administration, Mayor Michael Nutter, in particular was muted — unlike that of some other council members.
“I know that people tried to get a fight between Council and the administration, but even though we disagreed on a lot of things [Council] was still able to work with the administration,” Squilla said, crediting Council President Darrell Clarke with his deft handling of the tensions.
“We’ve always been able to be straightforward with each other,” Nutter said. “He seems to be a guy that wants to get things done. He’s not looking to do something else or anything. He seems like he has principles and things that he cares about.”
Ultimately, Squilla was so persuasive that Council voted to delay AVI for another year.
His philosophy, Squilla said, is one of making things happen.
“My philosophy as a whole is to get things done. I hate when people tell me things can’t be done,” he said. The goal of Council should be ‘let’s get it done.’”
Surprisingly that even applies to AVI — provided it’s done right.
“Let’s get it done,” he said, his voice rising. “We can help the mayor do something that nobody else was able to do, but it speaks well for Council. Let’s get it done. It’s a hard thing to do. Let’s not pass it off because it’s going to make some people mad.”
Squilla, who replaced long-serving Councilman Frank DiCicco, has no prior experience in holding elected office but was, since 2008, president of the Whitman Council, and boasts of two decades of community service on his résumé. When DiCicco announced that he would not be seeking re-election he endorsed Squilla. He also collected Nutter’s endorsement during his bid for Council.
Though AVI is likely to dominate Council’s agenda well into 2013, Squilla hopes to get some things done in his district and to tackle other issues faced by the city — jobs and crime. He doesn’t have all the answers, but is open to suggestions.
“Let’s try some new things, even if they don’t work, we’re trying,” he said.
Squilla also hopes that Council exerts a greater influence over the school district by keeping a firm grip on the purse strings.
“Without education, our city is going to fail. We have to make sure that they’re accountable and the only way we can do that is withhold money,” he said. “We have no other say.”
A graduate of St John Neumann High School and La Salle University, Squilla has been married for 22 years to Brigid, a nurse anesthetist. The councilman’s three daughters and son currently attend high school and college in the Philadelphia area.
He’s optimistic about the city’s future.
“I think we have the potential to really move forward,” he said. “The changes we need to make over the next three or four years are very, very important because if we cannot make positive changes — improve our schools, decrease crime — the people who have given the City of Philadelphia a chance will move. This is our time to make it work.”