Can you control the Zoning Board's decision on a request for a variance? If an undercover agent asked that question of a Philadelphia City Council member, the whispered answer might be, "Of course."
That's because Council members in this city have "councilmanic prerogative," a self-endowed superpower to stall or support stadiums, concert halls, pedestrian bridges, hotels, housing, museums, signs, decks, fences, and sidewalk cafes.
On her way out of office, retiring Councilwoman Donna Miller is using her "prerogative" to allow a six-story building on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill that could be twice as tall as any surrounding structures.
About 1,500 neighbors signed petitions saying the supermarket-townhouse-retail project will cast a shadow on their quaint business district. They don't mind development at an old Ford dealership, as long as it fits their community and doesn't harm other businesses.
But what the community wants too often doesn't matter when Council members can use their prerogative to take control over land use in their districts, even if it is at odds with the city's or neighborhood's interests. It is an unwritten understanding among members to respect each other's turf, because they may need a return favor one day.
Although legal, the practice can seem like extortion. And sometimes it is. Former Council members George Schwartz, who assured an FBI agent that he could control zoning; Rick Mariano, who "helped" a constituent get a variance; and Leland Beloff, who threatened to hold up zoning, did hard time for using their prerogatives to shake down developers.
Council prerogative, when so abused, can raise such a stench that it soils all of the members and the mayors who go along with it. The tradition undermines a Council's very legitimate role in ensuring that developers are sensitive to neighborhoods.
Council members don't need to play such an outsize role in development decisions. Developers and residents can air their desires and concerns before the planning, historical, or art commission, before the Zoning Board, or, as a last resort, in the courts. Council members can and do effectively participate in those hearings. That's where their insight belongs. There are so many variances to Philadelphia's zoning code now, and bills changing it further, because it is a relic from the last century that no longer reflects today's city. Council is set to pass a new, more logical code, which could make variances less common and life more predictable for businesses and residents.
But that new code will be meaningless if individual Council members can impose their will on any project in the name of prerogative. Council needs to acknowledge that with prerogative comes the possibility of corruption, which may benefit some people, but not neighborhoods. Council should open a new era by passing the updated zoning code, and rejecting Miller's zoning changes.