'Councilmanic Prerogative' Hindering Development in Philadelphia

The legislative quid pro quo is being used by members of the city council for the wrong reasons, leaving neighborhoods throughout the city in limbo.
March 14, 2019, 6am PDT | Camille Fink
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Gary Paul Lewis

Inga Saffron writes about the history and impacts of Philadelphia’s councilmanic prerogative, a practice that gives individual district councilmembers an inordinate amount of decision-making power:

Although the name sounds genteel and mannerly, the maneuver can turn an ordinary, mild-mannered district councilperson into power-mad feudal lord. No matter what craziness a local representative proposes, the rest of Council will vote in lockstep, no questions asked, knowing the favor will be returned when they want approval for a special measure in their own district. Usually the special bills involve property sales and zoning.

The Home Rule Charter in Philadelphia supports the prerogative, says Saffron, because it gives the city council final say on land sales and zoning changes and limits the authority of the planning commission.

Councilmembers have halted, thwarted, or left in limbo project after project through use of the prerogative, also known as "legislative courtesy," in their political wheeling and dealing. When projects do not move forward, the result is lingering blight, destruction of neighborhoods, and compromised public safety, says Saffron.

The prerogative violates the basic role of the legislature as part of a system of checks and balances, argues Saffron. She wants to see it eliminated, but she is not confident this will ever happen. "If Philadelphia ever hopes to realize its potential as a modern city, it’s going to need a constitution fit for the 21st century anyway. One where councilmanic prerogative doesn’t have the final word on the look of the city."

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Published on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 in The Inquirer / Philly.com
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