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Elections / Municipal government / Politics / Technology / workforce development

What 5 at-large City Council candidates envision for Philly’s tech and innovation community

Responding to a Technical.ly survey, here's where candidates stand on issues related to inclusive innovation in Philly, including attracting and retaining talent and using technology for a more efficient local government.

Philadelphia’s City Hall. (Courtesy of C. Smyth/Visit Philly)

This content is a part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Lead support is provided by the William Penn Foundation with additional funding from The Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and view a full list of supporters, visit everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.

Just a few weeks away from Philadelphia’s primary election on May 16, the race for City Council remains a crowded one.

Council’s role in city government is as a 17-person legislative body that enacts bills based on a majority vote, that are then signed into law by the mayor. The top job in city gov is also open this year, with 10 candidates currently running for mayor. Of the 17 council seats, 10 are elected from districts across the city, and seven are open through at-large positions. This year, all 17 positions are open.

A whopping 33 candidates have thrown their name into the ring for an at-large position on City Council, while 15 candidates are running for district seats. As part of Technical.ly’s participation in the Every Voice, Every Vote coalition of Philadelphia community and media organizations aiming to center voter voices in this election, we surveyed candidates on issues that are important to various technology and entrepreneurship community stakeholders.

We formed the questions based on the issues our community said were most important to them right now, and themes of supporting small businesses, attracting talent, and continuing to grow Philly’s tech and life sciences sectors emerged. Technical.ly contacted the candidates running for council seats with a survey, and we included the emailed responses of candidates who participated below. We will update this story as more candidates respond.

Each candidate answered these five questions:

  • What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as chief executive of a workforce of more than 25,000 city employees?*
  • How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient and accessible?
  • What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers?
  • What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare?
  • What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new
    businesses in Philadelphia?

*We sent these questions to both mayoral candidates and City Council candidates, though technically the mayor is the only chief executive of city government. City Council candidates answered the question in terms of their general leadership skills. Read mayoral candidates’ responses to our survey here.

Luz Colon (D)

Luz Colon. (courtesy photo)

What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as an executive of a workforce of more than 25,000 city employees? 

One key lesson that I learned from working under Gov. Tom Wolf is that leadership, especially in government, is about establishing accountability and empowering a culture of service. This must be demonstrated through both words and actions. At the beginning of his administration, Gov. Wolf immediately implemented a gift ban and put procedures in place to ensure that all employees understood the protocols on what is ethical and expected as a public servant who works for the tax payers. This was a pivotal step toward creating a culture where everyone was working for one common goal — to use our roles in government to serve and improve our communities. I want to emulate the same servant leadership and hold myself accountable for ensuring that the best interests of our city and communities are always at the forefront of my decisions.

How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient and accessible? 

If elected, one of my first actions will be to equip my team with someone who is specifically qualified with a technical background to manage technology and innovation initiatives. I plan to assess our city government agencies to better understand the current state of the infrastructure environment, applications portfolio, and IT service models. This would include interviews with key stakeholders and an employee-wide survey on IT experiences and recommendations for areas of improvement. Using this data, I will work with our IT departments and industry leaders to come up with a 1-, 5-, and 10-year plan to modernize our IT environment through actionable and realistic steps. A critical component of this initiative will also focus on cybersecurity and compliance to be proactive in managing risks and securing our data.

What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers? 

One of my highest priorities is to make Philadelphia among the top cities for innovation and technology. To achieve this, I will take proactive and collaborative measures to enhance the resources of our local colleges, like Drexel, Temple and Penn, to attract more students to come to our city. I support the funding of more city-wide conferences and competitions to promote entrepreneurship and business growth within our corridors. I will be an advocate for life sciences, arts and culture, and technology businesses in our city, while connecting those businesses through programs to public schools to create a pipeline of developing talent and opportunity. Lastly, I will invest in our infrastructure to ensure that we are providing safe streets and transportation and access to city-wide wifi networks so everyone has access to work from anywhere. This also includes a commitment to creating affordable housing to ensure that as we attract new talent, we are sustaining our neighborhood families and communities, which are the heartbeat of our city.

What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare? 

City government should serve as an advocate, catalyst, and champion for programs and initiatives that grow technology, life sciences and healthcare opportunities. I believe this can be done by attracting companies to bring those industry jobs to the city, investing our own budget in modernizing and advancing our technology services, and creating pipelines and programs to train our youth to enter careers in these fields.

What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new businesses in Philadelphia? 

If elected, I plan to carefully assess the business sectors to understand where past programs have succeeded and where they have failed. I will use a gap analysis and work with the city council to develop strategies to address these gaps to ensure businesses receive the support and services they need to keep their doors open. For small businesses, I will work to address barriers that prevent access to capital especially for minority and women-owned businesses. For larger corporations, I will create a plan that is very intentional about soliciting companies that have a strong culture, new job opportunities, and a track record of reinvesting in communities and neighborhoods.

Sam Oropeza (R)

Sam Oropeza. (Courtesy photo)

What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as an executive of a workforce of more than 25,000 city employees?

Patience and work ethic. I firmly believe in leading by example. That means spending more time out in the neighborhoods than behind a desk at City Hall. If employees see me, as a leader, working hard every single day, it sets a high professional standard. It’s a mentality that motivates people to work hard and get things done.

How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient and accessible?

First, we need to make people aware of the technological resources that we have now. For example, a lot of senior citizens are not aware of or know how to use the City 311 application. This is a technology that could be very useful for senior citizens who have issues in their neighborhoods. We need to make sure that technology is implemented in a way that does not exclude or disadvantage certain groups of people who may not have access to digital platforms or may require additional support to use them.

What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers?

The best way to attract new talent is to offer competitive pay and benefits. In today’s job market, that also includes options for remote work. Now more than ever, prospective employees are prioritizing work-life balance. Offering competitive compensation, benefits, and other perks such as remote work options will help attract and retains workers in Philadelphia

What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare?

One key responsibility of city government is to identify the needs of these industries and work with local businesses, educational institutions, and workforce development organizations to develop programs and initiatives that align with those needs. City government can play a critical role in workforce development for fast-growing industries by identifying needs, providing funding and support, promoting diversity and inclusion, and creating a supportive business environment.

What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new businesses in Philadelphia?  

First and foremost, we need to change the current negative public perception of Philadelphia by reducing crime and disorder in our city. There is no doubt that people are deterred from visiting, working in, and starting new businesses in Philadelphia when the lead story every single night on the news is crime and lawlessness. If we can effectively reduce crime using data-driven proven policing strategies that target only violent repeat offenders, we can drastically reduce shootings, murders, and robberies. Once people feel safe, I’m confident that business will come back to Philadelphia and this city can thrive!

Rue Landau (D)

Rue Landau. (Courtesy photo)

What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as an executive of a workforce of more than 25,000 city employees?

I was appointed to head the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relation and the Philadelphia Fair Housing Commission. At the PCHR/FHC, I oversaw a staff of 35 mostly civil service employees and a budget of $2.3 million. During my 12-year tenure, I helped transform the agencies into national models for government and community engagement, social justice, and equitable opportunity. But that came after I pushed for updates to our then-outdated systems and technology. When I started, the incredible group of public servants were doing the best work that they could but they simply weren’t given the resources they needed to thrive in their roles. We can’t ask our city employees to give us their all if we aren’t giving them the basics they need to do their job, and while I was at the Commissions, I did everything I could to get our systems and departments up to date at the time. In Council, I’ll be a strong advocate for doing just that for all of the City’s departments’ technology and systems.

How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient and accessible?

Our city is woefully behind when it comes to technology, and we can see the impact of that too often when various departments are not communicating with each other and sharing information and data effectively, efficiently and successfully. I believe we need an overhaul of our City’s systems and technology. We need to fund modern tools that departments require to operate and can use to share data and better communicate with one another. Departments that come to mind for front-of-the-line updates include L&I. I believe our city has sometimes tried to make updates to technology in the past and then walked away from them mid-stream, and as a member of City Council I would fight for consistency and funding to keep our City’s tech up to date. 311 is a perfect example of a program that had great promise from the outset but after disinvestment and a lack of attention has become one of the City’s initiatives that did not stand the test of time. In Council, I will be sure to advocate for consistent funding for these services and tech.

What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers?

We should prioritize sustainable population growth — with a special focus on a younger cohort — and our city’s economic growth and we need to ensure that these goals dovetail within our City’s strategy around economic development. If elected to Council, I would like to work with the mayor and other councilmembers, as well as relevant public and private sector stakeholders, to develop an economic growth strategy. We must have a cohesive, comprehensive, equitable strategy to thrive.

I would support investing in our infrastructure to increase access and availability of transportation to growing parts of the city, expanding sustainable as well as affordable/middle-class housing access and development to increase supply, and ensuring that the city is doing what it needs to in order to attract residents from other nearby cities who are looking for more affordable options. Finally, we need to fully fund and support our schools and educational programs so that families and college graduates stay in our city and have opportunities.

Again, the City’s staffing crisis remains a big part of the delivery of city services problem — we need a permanent and professional HR director who will modernize our hiring and retention systems. I would advocate for removing the four-year degree requirement from many job categories to increase hiring, and I would urge a new HR director to put into place initiatives to retain remote workers.

What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare?

I believe our priorities center around education. Education and workforce development starts with great public schools. My guiding principle on education is simple: Every child in Philadelphia — regardless of their background, race, or zip code — should have access to a great education in a safe facility.

Further, we have several world-class universities and colleges in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. Many other cities would love to have the talent that we have right in our backyard. We should be finding ways to keep that talent here, and encourage support businesses that hire locally. That may mean further incentives for businesses that hire locally. Additionally, Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) is an essential resource for our city to staff businesses. CCP is one of the most accessible, affordable, and equitable services our city provides. The success of our city and the success of CCP go hand in hand. As the city faces a staffing crisis, CCP is essential to provide Philadelphians with the training and skills we need to staff our city services and local businesses.

What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new businesses in Philadelphia?  

As a member of Council, I want to focus on growing Philadelphia, and that businesses are attracted to open and work in Philadelphia. We need to ensure that our Department of Commerce is supporting entrepreneurs and small business owners, including ensuring City contracts are being given to minority, women and disabled-owned businesses so that it meets its goal of a 35% rate of participation from these groups. As a member of City Council, I’d also ensure that my office is working with local and national incubators for Black and brown entrepreneurs to bolster Black and brown businesses in Philadelphia.

We must invest in our neighborhoods, create a vibrant center city, and ensure public safety. A safe, walkable city, with top-notch public transportation will help to revitalize our city and bring back or support our businesses. We also must invest in our neighborhoods, so that our residents thrive. In that regard, we need to fully fund and support our schools and educational programs so that our students who graduate have ample opportunities to create a future for themselves in the communities they grew up in.

I would support investing in our infrastructure to increase access and availability of transportation to growing parts of the city, expanding sustainable as well as affordable/middle-class housing access and development to increase supply, and ensuring that the city is doing what it needs to in order to attract residents from other nearby cities who are looking for more affordable options.

John B. Kelly (D)

John B. Kelly. (Courtesy photo)

What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as an executive of a workforce of more than 25,000 city employees?

City Council is not the chief executive, but I share my thoughts on this subject anyway: I have managed much smaller shops than the City with its 25,000 employees, but the same principles apply with an increased need for communication with the workforce and training of the middle managers to follow these management principles. Communication — the key is communicating the mission of the City, the administration, and each department, so that the team can care about what they do. Government work is essential to people’s well being and satisfaction with life. Therefore city workers should be proud of their work as they impact everyone’s well being. Communication has to work both ways so workers feel they are heard and have input to their work life.

Management principles:

  • Hire good people and give them the tools to do their job well.
  • Identify key performance measures, accurately measure them, and communicate the results to the workers. People like to be proud of their work, give them the information that enables them to see how they are doing.
  • Respect and work with the workers and their unions. The unions are a key part of the communication network and most of the union rules are good management practices. Managers need to be trained to see the union as a partner and the contract as a good management tool, and not an excuse for unacceptable results.

How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient and accessible?

New technology can be a great resource to improve efficiency and accessibility, but chasing every new technology or app can lead to splintering of technology systems, new application fatigue, and confusion by the users. To prevent this, we need a robust technology office that approaches it with a strategy and consistency, while being open to adjusting the plan to incorporate technology opportunities that become available and proven. We need to constantly innovate, but be steady and thoughtful in the application.

While the 311 program was a good idea, it was poorly implemented and not maintained. I would work to revive and remake this program, to make contacting the local government about non-emergency issues easier.

The government should be working to make our entire city more effective and efficient, and for the long term this means a focus on affordable sustainability. One place to start, that will make our city more efficient and sustainable, is public transportation. By expanding and improving SEPTA, we can decrease the number of cars needed on our roads. We need to electrify our bus fleet, a plan supported by TWU Local 234, in order to cut down on pollution and set the stage for long term efficiency. As we move away from fossil fuels, we must invest in renewable energy and job training programs, so that we create new good jobs to take the place of any that are no longer needed.

De-carbonization of our energy market is great for the environment, while presenting great risks for PGW as a natural gas distributor – but also great opportunities. We believe that Philadelphia has the resources — skilled labor, existing infrastructure, and market position – to take advantage of the opportunities and be a major player in the green energy economy of the 21st Century, improving the environment and creating jobs and wealth for Philadelphians.

What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers?

This question can be read two ways. Attracting and retaining talent as city employees and attracting and retaining talented people to the city. As a relatively low-cost housing city compared to NYC and the like (for remote workers with good paying jobs), Philly has enjoyed a migration of talent from places like Brooklyn. We can build on this trend by supporting neighborhood improvements to make our neighborhoods attractive and focused on urban living. I do not believe we should subsidize the new neighbors over the existing neighbors with tax abatements, as we need to support the schools and city services that these new neighbors need.

Many people want to or choose to live in Philadelphia as they enjoy the urban lifestyle, but we lose many of them because of schools, crime, and frustration with city services. Addressing these basic functions are most important to make our city attractive for workers and to retain talent, both as employees and as citizens.

For attracting and retaining city workers, we need to look at compensation to ensure we are competitive, but also look at the process of hiring. We have a lot of restrictions and requirements that prolongs the hiring process. While many of these rules were put in place for good reasons they need to be reviewed from time to time.

I would like to work with the City unions to see if we could develop a PEO or other temporary employer entity to bring people on board more quickly while they go through the process of becoming a City employee. This “probationary period” could get people on the job sooner (earning a paycheck, paying dues, being evaluated, and completing all the requirements to becoming a City employee), and if necessary allow for an easy exit if they do not pass all the requirements.

The issue of remote work and how it may reshape Philadelphia is huge. There are a lot of questions we need to think about as managers of a workforce and as city planners:

  • Are workers as productive in the remote or hybrid work environment as they were before? Do we have effective measurements?
  • Can managers maintain team morale and a sense of purpose in the remote environment?
  • Does returning to work in person create a negative lifestyle factor for recruiting and retention?
  • What is the future of cities in a remote working world?.
  • Do we still need city centers?
  • For Philly, does the migration of people from higher cost cities offset the loss of local commuters?
  • Does remote working enable the redevelopment of town centers in places like Frankford, Mayfair, Feltonville, Germantown, Roxborough, etc. as workers work from home and utilize local businesses, instead of Center City businesses.
  • If a smaller worker population in Center City is the future, how do we help businesses transition, do we increase the residential options so that it can become less of a commuter economy and more of a live/work environment – compared to many other cities, Philadelphia already has a leg up on that with great residential options in CC.
  • What are the implications to our public transit system, how should it change to best serve the public with low cost, environmentally friendly transportation.

This subject requires a great deal of analysis and input from the community and workers to ensure that Philadelphia is ready to adapt to the future.

What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare?

The City must get the State to fund our schools properly and the City and the State must fully fund CCP. These are needed so that our young adults have the education needed to participate in and support fast-growing industries.

The city can foster communication between industry and our education institutions so that the schools and students understand what opportunities exist. Our city government must work with partners in these fields to learn the growing needs, then work with our education system and labor leaders to implement the necessary programs to properly develop our workforce. As a City Council member, you have a large platform that must be used to draw attention to these growing fields and the opportunities within them, selling not just other members of the government on their importance but the general public and young people that are entering the workforce

Part of the problem is that we do not produce as many qualified graduates as we should due to underfunding of our schools, but employers also pre judge that there is no viable talent coming from city schools. Despite the underfunding, we have some exceptional teachers and students that succeed despite the under-funding. We need to promote the successes of our schools while we tirelessly demand and get a fair funding formula for our children.

What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new businesses in Philadelphia?

First, the City has to provide safe, clean streets — a functional city is the best support for new businesses. Improve the processing of permits so that there are clear requirements and a predictable time line that is competitive with other jurisdictions.

Simplify our business tax process:

  • I suspect that there is a large non-compliance by gig workers and small businesses because of the complexity of our business tax system.
  • For city residents, it could be as simple as submitting one’s 1040 and Schedule C. Business profits should be taxed the same as wages, so that owners pay the same tax whether they pay themselves a wage or as business income.
  • No one likes to pay taxes but most people will pay if we make it easier.

We must sell prospective business on the advantages of Philadelphia — ample labor pool, central location (being at the center of the transportation network, provides access to the labor force of the entire region), access to the ports, the existing industrial infrastructure, access to universities and students for research and talent, and hopefully soon — a growing middle class for customers.

In rare cases incentives can make a difference on a location decision, but in most cases incentives do not drive the decision. If the business can make money, it will be started. If it cannot, all the incentives in the world can not make it work. Government interventions that are meaningful include building and maintaining good public infrastructure, use of market position and purchasing power to support desired technologies or to support communities traditionally underserved.

Jalon Alexander (D)

Jalon Alexander in front of a blue background.

Jalon Alexander. (Courtesy photo)

What is a lesson on leadership that you’ll follow as an executive of a workforce of
more than 25,000 city employees?

Communicate effectively and stay proximate. When I was elected the first African American student body President of all 19 Penn State commonwealth campuses in the heat of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, what became extremely clear to me was that to lead effectively, especially within times of adversity you must communicate effectively. And this means having proximity to residents, employees, and citizens that may not agree with the positions you have but still have an obligation to serve them. I had to communicate effectively with campuses that wanted the Joe Paterno statute removed as well as those who did not and I was forced to make a hard, but correct choice. All parties involved felt informed and included because they were educated properly and I communicated with them. In Philadelphia, we currently have leadership that does not communicate as effectively as possible, and accordingly, citizens are not taking advantage of programs and civil services that can benefit them and help enhance the quality of their lives.

How will your administration use technology to make city government more effective, efficient, and accessible?

As a Cybersecurity Attorney and member of City Council, I will ensure that we modernize government and the way we fight crime through technology. The first order of business will be improving and investing in more of our digital infrastructure and data protection. This means investing in training city employees to avoid threats such as ransomware, phishing, etc. We also have to invest in software that protects citizen information better and software that manages the human resources we have better. For example, currently, the One Philadelphia payroll system has been flux with issues and inconsistencies with payment. As a result, Philadelphia municipal workers have faced issues in terms of getting the correct amount of compensation they are entitled to in a timely manner. Governing with more of a digital focus will ensure that we invest in software that works and technology that serves Philadelphians best.

What will you do to attract new talent to Philadelphia and retain remote workers?

First, continue to promote our thriving arts and culinary scene. These are two of Philadelphia’s greatest assets and drivers of tourism and young professionals. Second, use technology to fight violence. Individuals do not want to work or purchase a home in communities that are extremely dangerous. Consequently, violence has been driving the population out of Philadelphia. My plan “Drone Force Philly” will use drones and a unit of drone pilots and IT specialist to monitor control and coordinate with law enforcement officers closest to the scene to arrest shooters and car jackers. Additionally, drones will be used to combat illegal dumping which will help make the city cleaner and more attractive.

What role does city government have in workforce development for fast-growing industries such as technology, life sciences and healthcare?

City government has a role to work with the private sector to establish technological standards and encourage innovation in the city to improve our quality of life and services. I take this seriously because Philadelphia is not taking advantage of the tech resources and human capital we have in this city to improve commerce, public transportation and public safety. City government has to establish the standard for technology we use to better our public services and that requires consultation with the private sector.

What specific changes would you make to support the start and growth of new businesses in Philadelphia?

Reduce the BIRT Tax (Business Income and Receipts Tax), reduce the wage tax to help increase small businesses survive and improve public transportation and safety so that citizens feel comfortable enough to access and participate in using the goods and services that small businesses provide.

Companies: City of Philadelphia
Series: Every Voice, Every Vote

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