Has Philadelphia's famous "councilmanic prerogative" been used in Point Breeze to encourage construction of affordable housing, or to punish a political foe?
That was the question a federal jury had to grapple with Tuesday in the first day of trial for a lawsuit developer Ori Feibush filed against City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson.
Feibush, who lost the 2015 Democratic primary election for the Second District to Johnson, said his projects had been repeatedly stymied and opposed by Johnson and his staff.
"I am someone who speaks out against the establishment," Feibush testified. "That is sometimes rare in Philadelphia."
Feibush's suit contends that he was being punished in 2013 for his nascent challenge to Johnson, who refused to introduce legislation to authorize him to buy two city-owned lots on the 1300 block of South Cleveland Street.
Johnson on Tuesday testified that the city had already sold Feibush six properties in his district in 2013 and that he wanted to put the two lots aside for affordable-housing projects as part of a new Council initiative.
"We didn't think it was a big deal," Johnson said. "We didn't think it would land in court."
Councilmanic prerogative is a long-standing tradition, not codified in law, giving the city's 10 district Council members the ability to reject any land use requiring legislative approval in their districts.
Johnson presented himself on the stand as the creator of policy in his district who left the details to staff. He frequently answered that he did not recall specific projects but did remember talking to a staffer about Feibush's bid for the two lots.
Johnson introduced legislation last week to transfer the two lots Feibush sought in 2013 to the new Philadelphia Land Bank, which was set up to streamline the sale of city property.
Wally Zimolong, Feibush's lawyer, pointed out to Johnson that one of the lots had already been listed for sale, with no restrictions requiring use for affordable housing.
"I am aware," Johnson answered. "I think somebody screwed up on behalf of the city, to be up-front with you. Because the bill hasn't even passed yet."
Johnson said the gentrification of real estate in Point Breeze had concerned longtime residents. He called Feibush "the face of gentrification" and said the issue became the focus of their primary.
"It was the talking point of the campaign," Johnson said. "It is the hot-button issue."
The courtroom rippled with an undercurrent not just of political ambition, but of mutual hostility.
On the stand, Feibush freely admitted that he had called Johnson a "poverty pimp" who uses his power for evil in a Philadelphia Magazine profile published in 2013.
"I'm a big boy," Johnson testified earlier, recalling the insults better than the land-use projects. "I can take the comments and disrespect. That happens."
Feibush's original lawsuit was more expansive in its scope.
U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone dismissed several of his claims because elected officials have immunity from being sued for some actions taken as part of legitimate legislative duties.
Testimony was expected to resume Wednesday morning.