Pew Study Finds “Councilmanic Prerogative” As Strong As Ever In Philly
It has long been the custom in Philadelphia that individual City Council members have the final say on land development and zoning issues within the bounds of the districts they represent. Even projects that are good for the City as a whole and supported by a majority of City Council members can be stopped by a single member of council when this unwritten rule is invoked.
Councilmanic prerogative – which is effectively full-fledged veto power – permits a member of City Council to control how the land in their neighborhoods is developed. This is particularly the case with ground owned by the City itself. A number of widely known projects have been impacted by this custom over the years. Among them are Sugar House Casino and the Liacouras Center on Temple’s campus.
A recent Pew study on the deference local law makers show to each other in land development shows that it is effectively never violated and that it is used as a tool to raise campaign funds. Over the last 6 years, 730 land use applications were decided in Center City. All but four passed unanimously. It is presumed that councilmanic prerogative is the reason why this is the case. There is also circumstantial evidence linking approval of projects to campaign contributions made to the member of council holding that all important vote.
Proponents of the custom say it places the power to influence the outcome in those in the best position to evaluate the situation as representatives of the district where the development would go. Those in opposition say it gives too much power to one person and that this prevents projects from being built that would benefit the whole city. Regardless of which side one falls on, there is little doubt that this is a custom developers and builders have to be aware of when they want to work inside the Philadelphia City limits.