Abdul-Aliy Muhammad was arrested at City Hall last week protesting a policy that even engaged voters with urban planning degrees might struggle to define.
“We were there to demand an end to councilmanic prerogative,” Muhammad, who has since been released, said in an interview. “We want an end to these backdoor land deals, as people are being displaced from their neighborhoods.”
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Muhammad’s group, the Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, has marched against police brutality and racism in the Gayborhood, and for such issues as fair work schedules for service employees. It took up councilmanic prerogative because it sees this as directly related to anti-displacement activism in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Its members aren’t the only ones. Heading into Philadelphia’s primary season, the issue has been raised in news reports about suspicious land deals and by at least one candidate running for City Council, all while the city halts certain land sales in order to reassess its process.
Councilmanic prerogative refers to the unchecked power that the 10 Council members who represent defined geographic parts of the city have over land use in their districts.
“It is an incredibly wonky thing, and it’s an interesting hill to plant your flag on,” said Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant and lobbyist. “I’m not sure the average voter could tell you what it means, but it’s an interesting question, because councilmanic prerogative is Council’s bread and butter.”
How much power does a Philadelphia City Council member have? When it comes to how a neighborhood looks, a lot. Council has final say over land-use decisions, including whether to add a bike lane, create a historic district, or sell a vacant parcel of publicly owned land.
And it’s not really all of Council. That’s because, by custom, the 16 other members defer to the district representative on issues dealing with his or her turf. Council almost unflinchingly follows its own unwritten rule. A Pew study from 2015 found that of 730 Council votes where prerogative was in play, 726 were unanimous.
Critics say giving one legislator that much power makes the system vulnerable to unethical behavior, with developers giving Council members campaign contributions in hopes of favorable decisions down the road.
In the six cases where a Council member has been convicted of wrongdoing in Philadelphia over the last 40 years, all have involved land-use deals.