Judge rules for Bass in federal civil rights lawsuit

by Carla Robinson
Posted 12/14/22

A federal judge ruled last week that City Councilmember Cindy Bass did not violate the civil rights of committee person Carla Cain when she acted to remove Cain from a registered community organization.

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Judge rules for Bass in federal civil rights lawsuit


A federal judge ruled last week that City Councilmember Cindy Bass did not violate the civil rights of committee person Carla Cain when she acted to remove Cain from a registered community organization.

The ruling, which comes months after Cain filed a lawsuit alleging that Bass had removed her as the organization’s point of contact in an act of political retaliation, is the latest development in a longstanding fight for power in Philadelphia’s 22nd Democratic Ward.

Cain, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Bass for ward leader, once in 2018 and again in 2022, now serves as vice chair of the ward and is a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. She argued that Bass had no right to remove her from the ward-affiliated registered community organization (RCO), which Cain herself had created.

Bass, however, contended that city rules gave her, as ward leader, ultimate power over who could serve as the ward RCO’s point of contact.

Cain filed suit on Jan. 27, 2022. The hearing was held on Sept. 13 and the ruling, in which Judge Chad F. Kenney agreed with Bass, was issued Dec. 5.

“Plaintiff claims that Ms. Bass used the influence of her position as councilperson to conspire with the City to oust Ms. Cain as primary contact in retaliation for political speech and activities,” Kenney wrote. “In fact, the record reflects that in resolving the situation, the (city) aimed to ensure that all RCOs were handled in a consistent manner.”

In the ruling, Kenney said Cain did not prove that Bass had acted out of retaliation.

“The Court recognizes the standing political rivalry between Ms. Cain and Ms. Bass,” Kenney wrote. “But a standing political rivalry, wherein one party is elected to a position of authority over the other, does not impute a retaliatory motive onto any action taken by one party to the detriment of the other.”

In her lawsuit, Cain also argued that getting kicked off the RCO kept her from participating in any development projects in the area, including a controversial development project at 361 Hortter St., where a 24-unit apartment building is proposed at the site of a former grocery store. 

The judge, however, disagreed.

“Nothing prevents Ms. Cain from accessing publicly-available zoning and development information or attending public zoning board hearings,” he wrote. 

RCOs are neighborhood civic associations that allow neighbors to provide community input on local issues such as development projects. There are currently about 260 RCOs serving communities throughout the city. 

Patrick Christmas, policy director of the government watchdog organization Committee of Seventy, said this ruling raises questions about whether it’s appropriate for political wards to qualify as RCOs, especially when a district councilmember can also serve as a ward leader.

If ward leaders can control leadership of an RCO, and RCOs are a vehicle for residents to advocate for or against various zoning proposals, that creates a potential conflict for council members who are in a position to pass legislation relating to those same proposals, he said. 

“It seems odd, even problematic, that one person can sit on both sides of that fence,” Christmas said. “The way it is now, a councilmember can influence a potential zoning change via a local partisan organization and then turn around and decide on that same issue as a legislator.”

This is the second lawsuit involving Cain and Bass. 

In the first, Cain and three other 22nd Ward committee people – Maurice Sampson II, Michael Kleiner and Cynthia Albrecht – sued Bass and Robert Brady, chairman of the city’s Democratic Party Committee in state court over Bass’ excluding them from 22nd Ward meetings. 

In that case, the judge issued a June 3, 2022, ruling that found in favor of Cain, Sampson, Kleiner and Albrecht, ordering Bass to “cease and desist from excluding duly elected members” of the 22nd Ward from meetings and vote counts. 

In addition to running against Bass for ward leader, Cain ran for Philadelphia City Commissioner in 2019, but lost to Lisa Deeley. She also ran unsuccessfully for an at-large City Council seat in 2015.

Cain’s lawyer, John Carnes, did not respond when asked for comment as of Thursday. 

In response to a request for comment on the matter, Bass issued the following statement:

"Every single day I work hard to improve the quality of life for my constituents. I take this role very seriously and that’s why we refused to be distracted by this frivolous lawsuit. There is much work to do."