Philadelphia City Council tacked on $400,000 for its members to spend on coronavirus information campaigns in a last-minute amendment to an $85 million emergency transfer proposal from Mayor Jim Kenney in response to the virus pandemic.
City Council President Darrell Clarke said the potentially new funding for council members would go toward a “series of different initiatives,” including social media campaigns, to educate the public about the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and social distancing.
“We will be a part of the city’s response — period,” Clarke said.
The ordinance would transfer the funds from the grants revenue fund to the general fund. City Council members could give final approval to the fast-tracked legislation as soon as next week.
Members of council failed to publicly describe the amendment as the legislation sailed through a committee hearing and then was heard on a first reading before the full session on Thursday, both of which aired exclusively online and on television because City Hall remained closed as a preventative measure.
The lack of transparency over the amendment was “potentially an oversight,” said Clarke during a media-only telephone interview after the session.
If approved, council members could use the funding at their discretion for “advertising purposes” related to coronavirus relief efforts, including radio service announcements, billboard purchases and mailers to households, according to a memorandum about the amendment from Clarke’s financial team that was sent to council members.
No Kenney administration officials testified during the committee hearing on the bill.
Mayor Jim Kenney said later he supported “what we needed to do to get the appropriations passed, which we did.”
Kenney said he welcomed any assistance to get more information out to the public.
“If we have people still congregating in groups and not necessarily doing what we’re saying, as much information as possible out there would be necessary,” the mayor said.
The Kenney administration’s request for $85 million would provide additional funding for services as city officials continue to respond to the coronavirus, which has caused 402 reported cases and one death in Philadelphia.
According to the legislation, “personal services,” “purchase of services” and “materials, supplies and equipment” would each get $25 million while “contributions, indemnities and taxes” would receive $10 million.
Clarke brushed aside a question about whether the Kenney administration was not doing enough to educate the public about the coronavirus and needed additional help from council members.
“If there’s a concern about redundancy with good information, then I think that that’s something that clearly should not be,” he said. “We cannot get this message out here nearly enough.”
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who heads the council’s appropriations committee where the amendment was introduced, said residents in her 7th District were not heeding the warnings about practicing social distancing.
She said education campaigns from council members could be more effective.
“Sometimes when the messaging comes from people they [residents] feel closer to, [including] district council folks, the message is better,” Quiñones-Sánchez said.
Clarke said the spending of the $400,000 would be “very, very transparent” and come with guidelines.
According to the memo about the amendment from Clarke’s office, the advertisements that council members could spend the money would advise the public about coronavirus testing locations, relief programs, unemployment benefits and scams. They also could mention distribution sites for free meals from the School District and city, among other things.