A federal trial starting Monday will take a hard look at a long-standing Philadelphia tradition: councilmanic prerogative - the broad discretion City Council members have over land use in their districts.
In question is whether Councilman Kenyatta Johnson violated developer Ori Feibush's constitutional rights by blocking his attempts to purchase city-owned land. Feibush, who filed the suit as he was running for Johnson's seat, contends that the councilman was retaliating as a form of political revenge.
Johnson, who has denied the claims, did not return a request for comment; his attorney, John Coyle, declined to be interviewed. Feibush and his attorney, Walter Zimolong, also declined to comment, saying U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone asked the parties not to speak to reporters ahead of the trial.
Johnson and Feibush have found themselves in the spotlight many times before, in particular in the run-up to the May 2015 primary.
Feibush, a real estate developer based in Point Breeze, spent nearly a half-million dollars of his own money trying to unseat Johnson, who grew up in the district and has argued that gentrification there needs to be controlled.
On Election Day, Feibush drew just 38 percent of the vote.
In his lawsuit, Feibush contends that after he announced his candidacy, the councilman - "under the guise of councilmanic privilege" - refused to introduce legislation allowing him to purchase city-owned lots. In some cases, Feibush alleges, Johnson steered properties to a developer who had given to his campaigns.
"Defendant has unilaterally vetoed plaintiff's purchase of vacant lots within defendant's district: despite their being no other bidders in some cases," Feibush's lawyer wrote in the suit.
Johnson has denied the claims.
Of two properties on the 1300 block of South Cleveland Street that Feibush sought to buy, Johnson said he halted the sale because he wanted them to be used as part of an affordable housing strategy. On Thursday, Johnson introduced legislation that would transfer those lots to the Philadelphia Land Bank, which was created to streamline the sale of lots owned by disparate agencies.
The case that will be heard Monday is far more limited in scope than the one Feibush originally filed. Beetlestone threw out several of the claims under an immunity that protects elected officials from being sued for actions taken within the legitimate sphere of their legislative duties.
The judge in March also threw out a separate lawsuit that made similar claims against Johnson and had been filed by a former business partner of Feibush's. She ruled that Johnson was protected by a separate immunity government officials have from civil damages in many cases.
Feibush and Johnson both are expected to testify. A jury will be picked Monday, and opening arguments could take place as early as that afternoon.
Though the case is more limited, it's likely Johnson's and Feibush's heated primary race still will be a central part of the trial.
The sides sparred over whether a 2013 Philadelphia Magazine article in which Feibush stated his intention to run - and was quoted as calling Johnson a "poverty pimp" - was admissible as evidence.
Beetlestone ruled it was not. But Johnson's attorneys still can try to raise the article in questioning witnesses.