Councilmanic prerogative — the tradition that district Council members have final say over land use decisions — became a hot-button issue in the city’s recent primary, prompted in part by reports of developers profiting from getting public land below market value with the help of some city council members. And an Inquirer election poll found that 57 percent of Philadelphia voters want to see the practice reduced or eliminated.
Some changes have occurred. For example, in December, Mayor Jim Kenney issued a directive to prevent both flipping and speculation of public land. In March, Kenney wrote a letter to City Council directing that competitive bidding should be the default process to select who gets a parcel. Are these reforms enough? Are there other ways to improve how public land is sold and developed? Here are a few:
Last month, hours after she was sworn as the 56th mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order to reform their version of Councilmanic prerogative, called aldermanic privilege. According to the new executive order, alders will have a vote in the process but not a veto. Philadelphia should follow developments and evaluate the impact of Chicago’s reform.
The problem with most solutions to Councilmanic prerogative is that the City Charter requires that City Council must approve disposition of public land. This clause, like any other in the Charter, could be amended. Theoretically, an alternative body — or a number of bodies that could also include Council member — could approve sales instead. For example, a community advisory group for each district.
In December 2013, City Council established the Philadelphia Land Bank. The goal was to centralize land use decisions, streamline the process, and follow a citywide multiyear strategic plan. While any sale of city owned land through the Land Bank still requires Council approval, a more transparent process theoretically reduces the ability of a Council member to single-handedly direct land use decisions. That hasn’t been the case, in part because Council gave itself many points to intervene throughout the process. Council also made itself the only available expert on the needs of communities by not staffing the Land Bank with professionals who can assess Philadelphia. Professionalizing the Land Bank would be a worthy investment.
When a Council member steers a property to a specific developer, sets it aside for a specific use, or approves a sale at a discount, he or she should be required to publicly explain why that decision was made and why it should supersede the most competitive bid. That way, the people will have a track record to evaluate how the Council member chose to invoke prerogative.