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Your City Defined: Councilmanic Prerogative

You scratch my Councilman's back, I'll get you that property deal

Councilmanic Prerogative refers to the near-absolute power each of the city’s 10 District council members wield over development projects in their respective districts. This longstanding tradition—not codified in any law or the Home Charter—is a gentleman’s agreement whereby District Council members defer to the Councilperson in whose district a project resides. The result is that each Councilperson holds the power to green-light or stall all projects in his or her district, whether for good or ill.

Councilmanic Prerogative In Action: Seven years ago, Councilman Brian O’Neill held up an $800 million expansion of Fox Chase Cancer Center in his Northeast district because he wanted Fox Chase to fund a “community benefit fund.” (When Fox Chase merged with Temple, the issue became moot).

Remember how long it took for the Barnes to relocate to the city? That was, in part, because Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell blocked the relocation of the city’s Youth Detention Center to her West Philadelphia district—until she got a $12 million grant for a community center named after her late husband.

The Case For: City Council President Darrell Clarke argues that, “in return for the prerogative, Council expects the district council member to negotiate on the Council’s and the city’s behalf to improve the project, often dramatically.”

The Case Against: The tradition weakens the power of the planning commission, zoning board and neighborhood groups. Developers claim what’s best for the city rarely comes up, as opposed to what’s best for the individual Councilperson—and that the tradition can lead to de facto extortion. In some cases, it has facilitated actual extortion: Former Council members George Schwartz, Rick Mariano and Leland Beloff all were sentenced to jail for shaking down developers. Only a handful of cities still practice the tradition, including Chicago, where nearly a dozen Aldermen have been imprisoned for abusing it.

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