Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

DN Editorial: CROSSING THE LINE:Council's redistricting power grab, and how to fight it

When City Council redrew Philadelphia's political districts two years ago, the process felt like democracy.

Councilman Brian O'Neill (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)
Councilman Brian O'Neill (Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer)Read more

WHEN City Council redrew Philadelphia's political districts two years ago, the process wasn't perfect. But it felt like democracy.

Among many public meetings and forums, Council held hearings on redistricting so that residents could have a say. Probably not coincidentally, the new boundaries, officially set to go into effect in the 2015 election, are much better than the gerrymandered districts now on the books.

Compare that to what Council did on March 14, the day that Mayor Nutter's budget address was drowned out by livid city workers.

Council members quietly approved a resolution, when no one was paying attention, that gives them power over zoning, constituent services and capital dollars in their new districts starting this month - 2 1/2 years before the districts officially kick in.

Local geographer Sarah Cordivano estimates that 9.86 percent of constituents have been redistricted. In other words, thanks to the Council resolution, one out of every 10 residents is now represented by a district Council member that he or she didn't vote for. But Council didn't hold a hearing on the far-reaching measure, and introduced it a mere week before passing it.

Councilman Brian O'Neill, who sponsored the resolution, says that Council members have a longstanding tradition of providing services to constituents in the new political boundaries before they formally take effect. This resolution simply codifies that, he says.

Somehow, this doesn't make us feel better. Councilmanic prerogative, an unwritten rule that gives Council members near-total authority over zoning in their districts, is bad enough. But at least we knew about that gentleman's agreement.

If this resolution isn't a big deal, why not send a letter to every resident notifying him or her of the new district Council member? (To his credit, O'Neill told us that he wouldn't have a problem with that.)

We're guessing that some residents wouldn't be happy to hear that their elected representative voted for someone else to represent them.

But Council members argue that this gentleman's agreement actually benefits citizens, because without it there may be areas that would not be represented. Call us cynical, but that sounds like Council members admitting that they care little about people who won't be able to vote for them in the next election. Why should incumbent Council members get a 2 1/2-year head start on candidates who run against them?

It is true, though, that this resolution doesn't change much. In a city with a powerful ward structure and even more powerful lobbyists, we always knew that some Council members saw certain constituents as more equal than others. Now it's just in writing.

These are issues that should be explored in an open debate. In fact, they may signal that it is time to rethink how we do redistricting altogether.

Council President Darrell Clarke says that he is open to holding hearings on the resolution if there's public demand. You're the public. Demand a say by calling or emailing Clarke's office (215-686-2070,