The phrase “councilmanic prerogative” does not appear anywhere in Philadelphia’s City Charter. It is not found in the more voluminous City Code, either.
But councilmanic prerogative is an important concept in city government: an informal preference held by the 10 district council members over all land use decisions in their districts. This unchecked power determines whether multi-million-dollar developments will succeed or fail, and represents a temptation for even the most honest council members.
Since Center City began to revitalize in the 1990s, there has been non-stop construction Thirty years on, that boom has spilled out into surrounding neighborhoods, like Fishtown and Grays Ferry, and rippled out to Philadelphia’s borders. Investors are willing to earmark millions of dollars for these projects, which often require zoning variances. That creates a powerful lever, and prerogative places this lever in the hands of Philadelphia’s district council members.
The federal indictment of Second nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson reveals the temptation that this system causes.
In January, prosecutors charged the three-term Democrat and his wife with accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from executives at Universal Companies, a land development company that owned Southwest Center City property in Johnson’s district. The executives, who were also accused of stealing from their own company, were indicted as well. It is not the first time councilmanic prerogative got a councilman in hot water—three went to jail in the early 1980s in the ABSCAM affair, when they were caught promising undercover FBI agents they would exercise their councilmanic prerogative to push through a zoning change — in exchange for cash.
And with two current Councilmembers now under federal indictment — the other is Sixth District’s Bobby Henon— Philadelphia politics has not gotten cleaner.
The Johnson indictment centers around the former Royal Theater at 15th and South, which had grown increasingly blighted since it was closed in 1970. For more than a decade, despite grants that according to The Philadelphia Inquirer totalled nearly a half-million dollars from various governmental organizations, no progress was made in rehabilitating the building, and zoning restrictions blocked more profitable development on the site. In 2014, Johnson pushed zoning changes through City Council that opened the door to denser development. As he was the councilmember for the district, no one opposed the changes: the prerogative at work.
The planned development from Universal Companies never came about, but the zoning change made the land suddenly much more valuable. The company sold it a year later for a profit of nearly $3.5 million. That kind of money presents a powerful temptation, and when one council member can bring it about without accountability or oversight, events like this will happen time after time. As long as politicians control people’s ability to make money with their own property, those with the money will seek to influence politicians.
In fact, as long as City Council controls the zoning code, no reform can prevent a corrupt member from proposing a bill. And when they do, their fellow members almost never object. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts examined 730 votes on zoning changes between 2008 and 2014 and found that 726 of them passed unanimously. Putting control of zoning completely in the mayor’s hands might solve that problem, but it would only work if the mayor is a paragon of virtue himself. That is not unheard of in the city’s history, but it is not reliable enough to base a policy on.
What can be done? The authors of the 1951 City Charter thought the solution to local corruption was to weaken the City Council and give more power to the mayor. It worked for a while, especially when the office was occupied by reform-minded mayors like Joseph S. Clark (1952-1956) and Richardson Dilworth (1956-1962).
It is evident that the power itself is the problem, not the hands that wield it. Zoning laws create a pressure point, a place where those with the power to change the law can exert unfair pressure on property-owners. If City Council cannot be trusted to use their power over zoning ethically, why not do away with it all together?
The City of Houston, which is larger than Philadelphia, famously has no zoning code. It has a building code, some height restrictions, and other regulations that do some of the work of the zoning system, but there is no mechanism for politicians there to shake down property owners for bribes — or property owners to exert undue influence on elected officials.
And it works: Houston looks much like other Texas cities that have zoning codes. Land use there remains unencumbered by crooked politicians and bureaucratic minutiae, meaning more freedom for individual land owners — and in turn, property buyers and renters.
Cynical Philadelphians may shrug and say that all of our politicians are crooks. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps when enough of our city politicians are behind bars for abusing their power , Philadelphia will turn to a truly revolutionary idea: take the power away from them and give it back to the people.