Press Release

Pew Report Examines Philadelphia's 'Councilmanic Prerogative'

Study is the first analysis of long-standing legislative courtesy in land use decisions

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PHILADELPHIA—A new report from The Pew Charitable Trusts examines the Philadelphia legislative practice known as “councilmanic prerogative,” through which individual City Council members make nearly all of the land use decisions in their jurisdictions.

The report, Philadelphia’s Councilmanic Prerogative: How it Works and Why it Matters, is based on extensive analysis of city records as well as interviews with dozens of individuals who have been involved in the process, including officials, developers, academics, and community advocates. It is the first independent examination of the practice in the city.

“Councilmanic prerogative is not unique to Philadelphia, but our research shows that it is a more powerful factor here than in many other cities,” said Larry Eichel, director of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative. “From skyscrapers to urban gardens, this legislative tradition affects development in the city.”

Among the research findings: 

  • The use of prerogative, when invoked by a district council member, is unfailingly honored by the rest of council, even when the project in question is widely considered to be of citywide importance. There are no recorded cases in recent years of a prerogative vote going against a district council member. In the six years studied for this report, 726 of 730 of those decisions were unanimous, and a total of six dissenting votes were cast.
  • Although prerogative is often exercised to block the sale of city-owned land at least temporarily, the lack of available data makes it difficult to determine whether prerogative is a principal factor delaying the pace of those sales. The city’s land disposition process rarely moves quickly; even when prerogative is not exercised, transactions can take many months or even years to conclude. And there have been relatively few documented cases in recent years of prerogative being used to block land sales permanently.
  • The December 2013 legislation that created a land bank, an agency that will oversee disposition of city-owned vacant land, ensures that prerogative will remain a central feature of land disposition in Philadelphia. In addition, the city’s new zoning code, adopted in 2012 in an attempt to streamline and simplify development, has not reduced council’s involvement in zoning decisions.
  • Prerogative is not unique to Philadelphia. Legislative courtesy, as it tends to be called elsewhere, is a relatively common political tradition, particularly in large older cities such as Chicago and New York where representatives are elected by district. The practice is less common where all local representatives are elected at large. Philadelphia has a more robust prerogative tradition than most cities, owing to such factors as decades of one-party rule, a large supply of publicly owned land, and a long legislative tradition of adjusting the zoning code.

The study was conducted in partnership with PlanPhilly, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that is a project of WHYY/Newsworks.

For more information and to download the complete report, visit www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch

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The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative provides timely, impartial research and analysis on key issues facing Philadelphia for the benefit of the city’s citizens and leaders. Learn more at www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.

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