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The Fix: Can Kenyatta Johnson Be … Richard Nixon?

The twice tried and ultimately acquitted Council president has the unique opportunity to reform the scourge of councilmanic prerogative … and finally make us One City

The Fix: Can Kenyatta Johnson Be … Richard Nixon?

The twice tried and ultimately acquitted Council president has the unique opportunity to reform the scourge of councilmanic prerogative … and finally make us One City

Let’s start with giving props: Council President Kenyatta Johnson has impressed thus far in his inaugural leadership term. He’s brought structure and discipline to the legislative process, he hasn’t let the body get bogged down in dueling Gaza war resolutions, and, while largely residing on the same page as the new mayor, he’s sent the signal that he won’t be a rubber stamp: “I know a lot of people are looking for the theater: Council president versus the mayor,” Johnson said after his Council opposed Mayor Parker’s School Board reappointment of Joyce Wilkerson. “But nevertheless, we are a legislative body, and there will be times that we will disagree, and there will also be times we will agree because we all have the same common goals, and that is to move the City of Philadelphia forward.”

Parker responded by inviting Wilkerson to continue to serve until she named a replacement — a time frame that the Home Rule Charter is silent on, conveniently enough for the mayor. It was, 100 days in, the first mini-clash between the new mayor and council president. This is mostly a healthy thing. The previous mayor conceded power to Darrell Clarke’s Council. Thus far, two strong public servants sometimes disagreeing on details bodes well for competent governing — so long as both continue to align on vision. Arguing over means, in other words, is cool, as long as the ends remain commonly held. And to date both Parker and Johnson herald the importance of Philadelphia finally becoming “One City.”

I just love that inspiring, communitarian phrase. It says to all: We’re in this together. But making it real will require both the mayor and Johnson to cross a third rail of local politics. It will demand that they take on… drumroll please … the scourge of councilmanic prerogative.

“Nixon going to China? I like that idea,” Johnson told me a couple of months ago. “I’m going to think about that.”

Council’s gentlemen’s agreement defers to district members’ unrivaled final say on land dispensation within their respective fiefdoms. Want to get a building permit? A zoning variance? Councilmanic prerogative can either fast-track or bury it. The result is not only frequent charges of corruption, but also balkanization. At-large members cower at the thought of introducing legislation without first kissing the ring of any district member who can lay geographic claim to its reach. Hell, we even have different zoning regulations for different districts in the same city, all dependent on the whims and interests of said districts’ respective Council representatives. It all begs the question: Are we one city, as Parker has trumpeted … or not?

Johnson has long been a skilled practitioner in the dark art of councilmanic prerogative, so much so, he was indicted and ultimately acquitted, on public corruption charges stemming from it. Just last month, there was proof of just how endemic prerogative is to Johnson’s brand, when news reports detailed how his childhood friend pled guilty to using their relationship to defraud taxpayers by flipping City-owned properties in Johnson’s district. Johnson was not a party to his friend’s crime — in fact, he was an unwitting victim of it — but the episode was a reminder of how intimately his public persona is linked to prerogative.

Which, of course, makes Johnson, even more than Parker, uniquely qualified to reform the process. Just as only one-time hardline anti-Communist Richard Nixon had the credibility to normalize relations with Red China, so too does Johnson possess a unique credibility when it comes to at least tempering the worst effects of prerogative.

“Nixon going to China? I like that idea,” Johnson told me a couple of months ago, when I first floated the idea to him at this year’s Citizen of the Year Awards. “I’m going to think about that.”

Why should you care?

Before we get to just how Johnson could begin to embark on such a reform, thereby cementing a legacy in his first term as president, let me anticipate your skepticism. Isn’t this all just inside baseball? Why should I care about the backroom machinations of some pols doing what pols have always done? Well, if the lack of alignment between rhetoric (“One City”) and reality (district prerogative run amok) doesn’t get you stoked for change, let me ask you this: Do you like affordable housing? Think the city needs it? What would you say if I told you that councilmanic prerogative stands in the way of us getting more of it? You still okay with all these Democrats playing their inside game and thereby limiting the supply of homes many Black and Brown citizens are able to afford?

After all, one research report bears out that cities that grant land use privileges to district representatives over at-large ones inhibit the building of new housing — by some 21 percent. Another one, studying California cities, finds that switching from at-large to district elections led to a 48 percent drop in the permitting of multifamily housing units that would have helped fuel opportunity for minority households of modest means.

Chicago offers a compelling case study. There, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced the damning findings of a five-year investigation into the ways that city’s version of councilmanic prerogative — they call it aldermanic prerogative — violates federal civil rights laws. “… The City affords each of its 50 wards a local veto over proposals to build affordable housing, and that many majority-White wards use the local veto to block, deter, or downsize such proposals,” HUD concluded. “As a result, new affordable housing is rarely, if ever, constructed in the majority-White wards … By limiting the availability of affordable housing, the local veto disproportionately harms Black and Hispanic households.”

Consider this less of a challenge and more like unsolicited political advice: Kenyatta, your biography grants you the credibility to make your mark through reforming a system you have so ably navigated.

The federal agency is challenging Mayor Brandon Johnson to enter into talks with it to resolve the policy’s injustices — or else. The probe came about after 10 advocacy groups filed a complaint with HUD. Maybe the effects of prerogative here don’t precisely mimic Chicago’s, but where are our 10 advocacy groups to at least spur that conversation?

Speaking of Chicago, its recent history of trying to reform prerogative might be a political cautionary tale. On her 2019 inauguration day, former Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order strengthening the Planning Department in relation to aldermanic power — so that aldermen still had a say, but not an all-powerful veto over land use issues in their districts. That didn’t go over so well in the legislature, and Lightfoot found herself governing with few legislative allies.

After Brandon Johnson — no reformer — not coincidentally beat her last year, she fired a parting shot at Council with a barrage of 11 executive orders on her last day in office relating to prerogative, including making public all recommendations made to the Zoning Commission; that way, citizens could easily discern what their elected leaders are choosing to ignore when it comes to what gets built, and how, in their neighborhoods. Alas, it’s a year into his term, and Johnson’s poll numbers are under water — all of 20 percent approval! — and he has predictably let those Lightfoot orders languish, unenforced.

So, with all those political yellow lights flashing, here are reasonable reform options for Parker and, especially, Johnson to consider. Neither are reformers at heart, but with each indictment, perp walk, and, yes, acquittal, it’s becoming clear that ours, like Chicago’s, is an antiquated and corrupt system. The elected leader who fixes a problem like prerogative is likely one who makes history and thereby benefits politically. Here goes:

      • Empower City Departments. As an outsider, Lightfoot’s reform efforts were doomed in Chicago. But longtime insiders like Parker and, especially, Johnson would have the credibility to bring Council and the establishment kicking and screaming into political modernity. Remember Lightfoot’s day one executive order directing city departments to cease deferring to aldermen; they’d “continue to have a voice,” she said, “but not a veto.”

Think back to when a City department like L&I did the bidding for soon-to-be-convicted criminals Bobby Henon and John Dougherty. City workers succumbing to such strong-arm tactics would be in direct defiance of such a mayoral mandate. Lightfoot’s order laid out how such a directive would work in practice, too: Aldermanic input was defined as “verbal or written information, submitted by an alderman to a department, concerning a factor that is relevant to departmental decision-making,” and city employees would be required to actually log each time an alderman weighed in with an opinion.

      • A Gentlemen’s Agreement Limiting The Gentlemen’s Agreement. Here’s the thing about prerogative: I’m a realist. I get that a district councilperson wants a say on land deals in his or her district. The argument you often hear from district members — that no one knows better what a district needs than its elected representative — is disingenuous. In practice, as we’ve seen, it’s often a type of excuse, “what’s-in-it-for-me” leadership dressed up as high-minded public service.

But let’s be generous and grant you, dear councilperson, some serious influence over that six-story multifamily unit. Have at it. But under no circumstance should you have vast powers over economic development that affects every other neighborhood in the city, not to mention our shared economic future. The fact that, essentially, the economic impact fate of a $1.5 billion arena rests with Councilperson Mark Squilla is looney tunes.

So how about this? You all strike a gentlemen’s agreement that amends your original one. You agree that, in deals over, say, a few hundred million dollars, there will be no prerogative. The district councilperson in question will — as Lightfoot’s inaugural reform in Chicago established — get a say with Planning and Zoning, but not the say. That will at least free up the big institutions — the Sixers, Comcast Spectacor, Penn, CHOP, Drexel, et al — and the big builders to make their proposals and let them stand and fall on their individual merits, in the court of public opinion. No side deals, no patronage, no kissing of rings. Would you pinkie-swear to that?

      • Charter Change No. 1. Instead of 10 district members and seven at-large, how about we expand Council to, say, 15 at-large and 12 district members? That would shift the balance of power such that the at-large bloc would now be empowered to override district land use deals that run counter to the interests of the whole city. And, by increasing the number of district members, we’d actually be calling the bluff of the district members who champion local expertise as the rationale behind prerogative. You value local so much? Let’s make you more responsive to your constituents by lessening them in number.
      • Charter Change No. 2. Our de facto constitution calls explicitly for a City Council ordinance in order to sell any City-owned properties. As Jon Geeting has long argued, the ordinance requirement enables councilmembers to steer land sales to their cronies and contributors through the Vacant Property Review Committee, which often acts as an administrative front for a councilmember’s interests. How do you change this? Council would have to place new Charter language onto the ballot. Council, reform thyself?

I know, I know. I can hear our city insiders chuckling from here. Neither Parker nor Johnson was elected as a systemic reformer. But Johnson, in particular, has a chance to do something that makes history here. He’s done a lot of good things in his career, but most people don’t know it. They’re not like me; they have lives, and they’re busy living them. Many Philadelphians only know Johnson as a guy who ran into legal trouble more than once in a vastly corrupt city. This is his chance for a rebrand.

Consider this less of a challenge and more like unsolicited political advice: Kenyatta, your biography grants you the credibility to make your mark through reforming a system you have so ably navigated. Kenyatta Johnson and Richard Nixon, separated at birth? Politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Councilmember Johnson’s legal travails. He was indicted once, and ultimately acquitted after two federal trials.


The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.

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