A bill introduced in Philadelphia City Council on Thursday would require sprinklers in certain high-rise apartment buildings, a safety reform driven by disastrous blazes in recent years, including the January fire in Fairmount that killed 12 people.
The bill, introduced by Councilmember Mark Squilla, would mandate property owners to install fire-dousing systems in all buildings roughly six stories or taller than 75 feet, and the proposal has already drawn opposition from real estate groups.
While Squilla's proposal has been years in the making, his bill has another set of fingerprints on it, too: his former colleague, Bobby Henon, who has continued to advocate for the sprinkler expansion since leaving office in January.
Henon was convicted on bribery and honest services fraud in November for doing the bidding of former building trades leader John J. Dougherty in exchange for a $70,000-a-year union salary from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
After his conviction, Henon stepped down from his committee leadership roles, but continued to perform legislative work through his resignation in January, as permitted under state law.
But in February, weeks after he tendered his resignation papers, Henon continued discussions with both Mayor Jim Kenney's administration and Council colleagues about pursuing the sprinkler legislation, according to emails obtained by The Inquirer.
Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard confirmed two administration officials met with Henon at the ex-lawmaker's request to "discuss several outstanding issues he had been working on and wanted to bring to the Administration's attention."
As a citizen now, Henon's lingering influence on Council represents an unusual gray area for ethics watchdogs.
"It doesn't look great to have a councilmember who left office and is now heading off to prison to be working on these matters," said Patrick Christmas, policy director of good government group Committee of Seventy.
Henon would be required to register as a lobbyist if he was getting paid by a third-party group to push legislation, according to the Board of Ethics. But Shane Creamer, the board's executive director, said that Henon is acting on his own behalf, "there wouldn't be any issues."
Henon, who is scheduled for sentencing in June, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Squilla, who took over as chair of Council's Licenses and Inspections Committee after Henon stepped down, saw no problem with Henon's involvement, considering their long engagement on building safety issues.
Squilla in 2018 sponsored a bill requiring sprinkler systems in all historic buildings, and in recent years, he said he worked closely with Henon on extending the mandate to high-rise buildings. It's the next step in what he eventually hopes will be a citywide mandate to prevent catastrophic blazes.
"I don't know if you can lobby somebody who wanted to do it in the first place," Squilla said.
Some landlord groups pushed back against the bill as an unnecessary mandate. In a statement, the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors questioned whether sprinkler systems were as effective as hardwired smoke detectors, which are already required in high-rise buildings.