Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Week 35: October 29, 2021
Early next week on Tuesday, November 2nd, Pennsylvania has its Municipal Election. While there is an incredible amount of emphasis put on the presidential elections, local elections almost always have a bigger impact on your everyday life. Instead of providing bios for the candidates (which you can find here), we figured we would instead tell you a little bit more about some policy that is on the ballot.
In addition to the candidates, there are four proposed “charter changes” (amendments to the city constitution) that are going to be on the ballot. Below are the descriptions, context and significance of two of these changes; the broad descriptions for all four charter changes can be found here.
The Legalization of Marijuana
The first charter change on the ballot is to include a statement encouraging the Pennsylvania legislature to legalize the use of recreational marijuana for those over the age of 21. In the late 1930s, fear mongering about marijuana spread through the United States and the federal government wanted to universally prohibit marijuana, but they do not have the Constitutional power to do so. Finding a loophole, they passed the Tax Stamp Act of 1937, which taxed marijuana so heavily that most Americans could not afford it.
This Act was eventually challenged in the supreme court and deemed unconstitutional as it interfered with the 5th Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination, as it required individuals to declare possession of weed which was an illegal substance in many states. In response to the constitutional ruling, the federal government quickly passed the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 which classified marijuana as a drug as dangerous and addictive as heroin and cocaine, a classification that is heavily disputed by significant research.
In 2014, Philadelphia decriminalized recreational marijuana, meaning possession of small quantities could no longer be punished with arrest and instead would be penalized with fines of between $25 and $100. This is not to say that people are no longer arrested for growing, selling, or distributing marijuana, and these arrests disproportionately target Black people who are more than 5 times as likely to be arrested in Pennsylvania than white people for having weed (despite similar rates of use between the two groups).
Additionally, the financial repercussions for marijuana arrests are severe for both the individual, who may lose their job or public benefits, and the state – states waste over 3.5 billion dollars a year enforcing marijuana laws.
Legalizing marijuana would allow the people of Philadelphia safer access to a drug that many already use, and it would reduce economic injustice. Additionally, it would allow the state to make money that they can use to support other programs and COVID-19 recovery funding rather than losing billions of dollars each year to enforce the ban.
Civil Service Assessments and Equitable Hiring Practices
The current hiring rules for municipal jobs (non-elected city employees), which were put in place 70 years ago to combat corruption and mass patronage, use standardized tests to determine who can interview for a department– only the applicants with the top two scores can even be considered for a position.
However, Philadelphia is not facing the same issues it was back then and the problem with the current system is succinctly summarized by Michael Zaccagni, the Director of Human Resources for the City of Philadelphia, as follows: “The Rule of Two assumes a precision in testing that does not exist, [resulting in] capable candidates being denied opportunities based on differences in scores.”
Not only are the tests not precise, but they have repeatedly been shown to be biased against minorities and people who don’t identify as male. The standardized tests range from the Computer Literacy and Internet Knowledge Test (CLIK) which tries to determine the computer proficiency of an individual, to the Workplace Productivity Profile (WPP), a personality test which supposedly looks at a candidate’s integrity and rule following capacity. While these are important traits to be able to determine in prospective employees, it has been shown that minorities tend to perform worse on these tests.
Theories for why this is the case range from the realities of an unequal educational system, leading to a lower proficiency in math and writing for Black and brown people, to the introduction of bias in the vocabulary and social situations assessed because the tests are written mostly by well-off white men. In addition to being a barrier to equitable hiring practices, the system is also incredibly inefficient. The median wait period between an individual submitting their application and being selected is 360 days and finding a qualified candidate for a position can take years.
The proposed charter change would allow the City’s Personnel Director to decide how many applicants a department may choose from (overriding the rule of two) and how often an applicant can be considered. While this is not a perfect solution, and other measures must be researched and implemented to ensure a diverse and qualified workforce, passing this charter change would be a big step towards merit centered, fair, and efficient hiring.
When it comes to issues such as police reform, climate change, and educational justice, local elections are one of the best opportunities we have to make sure they are addressed, at least in our local communities. Petitions and protests are important, but we have to follow through by voting.