by Jay A. McCalla

Part of Philadelphia’s charming quirkiness is that we’re governed by myth and custom as much as law.

The height of our skyline had been limited by the widely held (and false) belief that an ordinance prohibited structures taller than Billy Penn’s hat. Our custom is to permit squirrelly, perhaps dangerous, parking patterns in parts of South Philly.

Another one of our “cherished traditions” is the much misunderstood, incessantly (if silently) invoked Councilmanic Prerogative.

It’s a phrase like “Catch 22” that is infrequently used appropriately.

Councilmanic Prerogative is an unwritten practice among Council members that dictates no member will interfere in the politics of a colleague’s district. Fourth District Councilperson Curtis Jones would not opine on zoning issues in Jannie Blackwell’s Third District, for instance. After all, who can better assess the needs and politics of a neighborhood than the appropriate District Councilperson?

Even Councilpeople at-large steer clear of issues that strictly pertain to District Councilpeople. They are silent on property dispositions, zoning, parking and traffic regulations, demolition, housing grants, etc. At-large members who meddle in a district are very quickly told to “mind your own business” by that district councilperson and runs the risk of being ostracized by other District Councilpeople if the meddling persists.

While this “law of the jungle” seems to make sense, it does create a startling stranglehold over development that can be criminally leveraged.

In 1987, District Councilman Lee Beloff attempted to extort $1 million from the late developer Willard Rouse in exchange for introducing ordinances that would clear the way for a major undertaking by the developer. Beloff and an aide were convicted of extortion in the Rouse matter along with two other developers.

More recently, Cordish Casino needed City Council to approve a zoning change in order to begin construction in the Council district of Kenyatta Johnson. Councilmanic Prerogative gives Johnson absolute control over whether or not council will entertain the change. That’s real power and only a fool wouldn’t know how to leverage it.

Will Temple University’s new stadium need zoning changes authorized by council? If so, 5th District Councilman Darrell Clarke will have “life and death” power over the project. This being the case, Temple would rightly focus a great deal of effort in the cause of making Councilperson Clarke happy.

But, the most common use of Councilmanic Prerogative is the disposition of city-owned properties, where the councilperson is king. Agencies are unwilling to engage a developer on his plans, financing and general suitability unless the District Councilperson has signaled his or her approval. Otherwise, months of negotiations could be wasted if, in the end, the district councilperson refuses to introduce the resolution needed to make formal disposition.

A smart developer will hold political fundraisers for the District Councilperson and support candidates they favor. They become de facto members of a political organization in order to secure their place on the gravy train of city-owned properties.

Plainly, this relegates the average citizen to second-class status in pursuit of properties our government has to offer. Folks who have neither the means nor the inclination to seduce their elected officials can get left in the cold and there is absolutely no appeal.

The argument against this habitude is diverse and compelling. It stifles the voice of Councilpeople at Large, creates inequity, picks “winners and losers” and can very easily lead to criminal abuse.

Councilmanic Prerogative is a mere custom and cannot be repealed the way we might any other bad rule. Moreover, it is as much an underpinning of that legislative body as the formal rules themselves. While I have seen the Rules of Council amended and suspended, I’ve never seen the slightest deviation in the application of “prerogative”.

After Beloff was convicted of extorting developers, there was talk among his colleagues about amending the system that enabled the crime. That talk went nowhere.

Councilpeople never publicly discuss their unwholesome practice and the media doesn’t appreciate its impact. This may be one of the things we have to endure. But, it is indeed empowering to look “them” in the eye and say “I know how you play your game.”–

Jay A. McCalla is a former deputy managing director and chief of staff for Philadelphia City Council. He does political commentary on WURD900AM and contributes to Philadelphia Magazine. He can be followed and reached on Twitter @jayamccalla1.

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