by Jay A McCalla
In the course of a typical day, information is excitedly shoved our way by anxious anchor people, fatuous Facebook posts, cable, coworkers and any twit with a Twitter account (which I have.) Since it is the way of the media to deliver all news with a breathless urgency, it’s tough to figure out what’s really important. What do I need to know? Can I tune out now?
Perhaps, I can help – just this once.
Philly.com reports that the FBI is investigating how the City of Philadelphia disposes of land and whether or not campaign contributors have an advantage in the process. Their interest was sparked by a lawsuit filed by a Point Breeze developer, alleging that 2nd District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson blocked his acquisition of city-owned land while expediting the acquisitions of his contributors.
When I first learned of the lawsuit against the Councilperson, I didn’t think it had a chance and may still not be viable. The guidelines for disposing of city-owned properties are an inspired blend of transparency, documentation, politics and privilege. For the average citizen, there are forms to complete, long periods of waiting, unreturned phone calls and – perhaps – failure. For the person with a “Council connection,” Redevelopment Authority staff or the Department of Public Property gets a call from the district council office telling them precisely who gets what.
For a few years, I was director of governmental affairs at the RDA and would often be the guy who received “the call.” It may well be that a completely worthy senior citizen completed all the proper paperwork and waited longer than was decent only to learn the councilperson had already picked a winner.
While Council people have no official role in the actual processing of applicants, our law requires city-owned land be disposed of via ordinance or resolution. Agencies aren’t empowered to dispose of property without explicit, formal Council permission. On land disposition, a district councilperson can effectively say “it’s my way or the highway.” If they object to the recipient, they simply will refuse to introduce the ordinance or resolution. No one and nothing can force their cooperation. So, wise agency staff involves the Council office on virtually every disposition and acquisition – up front. Council “prerogative” is baked into almost every disposition of property.
The FBI probe focuses on Johnson and his possible motivations for weighing in on who gets what. But, the fact is each of the 10 district council people is equally involved in land deals. At many council sessions, much of the business involves the conveyance of deeds, PHDC, RDA, PIDC, Public Property. The district councilperson brokers for them all.
Smart developers will make regular political donations and host fundraisers. They make certain to be where the pols are. Land, politics and money ooze together into one malodorous stream that is poison and seems permanent. It was there when I entered government and it was there when I left.
Over the years, there have been several different approaches to the processing of land and property requests. The Vacant Property Review Committee was invented where many government agencies were represented. A new land bank has come on the scene. The plain shortcoming of both bodies is thar their “decisions” must go to Council where everything could change.
I have no knowledge, specific or general, of wrongdoing by any member of City Council, but I recognize the system invites corruption. I also know members of Council will never surrender the almost total power they enjoy over development in their districts.
An object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. In this case, the outside force is the FBI. As they probe allegations made by one developer, perhaps they will examine the entire system and other transactions that look suspicious. It may be tough to isolate a specific disposition to a specific donation, but it will be worth the try.
With the exception of four corrupt state reps nailed by DA Seth Williams, the feds have helped “take out the city’s trash.” They cleaned out Traffic Court, jailed state senators and members of Council. Now, they are closing in on a congressman and a former sheriff. Frankly, I’m glad we have their attention.
This investigation into city land transactions could really matter. Despite Council members Jannotti, Johanson, Mariano, Beloff and Tayoun going to prison, Council is still uninterested in creating reliable transparency.
So, I tip my hat and cross my fingers in the belief that reform is always possible. Even if we merely go from “corrupt and content” to “corrupt and nervous,” that will be a step in the right direction.