Philadelphia’s Councilmanic Prerogative
How it works and why it matters
This report 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 study 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.
To learn more about councilmanic prerogative in Philadelphia and similar practices in other cities, view or download the complete report PDF.
After the publication of this report, Pew revised Figure 9 to make it clearer and more accurate. The new version is more precise in diagramming the overall zoning approval process and the sequence of the various steps, including the opportunities for the exercise of councilmanic prerogative.
Philadelphia’s government is built around the concept of a “strong mayor,” an elected chief executive with broad powers to make policy, run the city, and administer the budget.
But when a developer wishes to build a skyscraper, a block captain wants to turn a vacant lot into an urban garden, or a nonprofit organization intends to construct low-income housing, the mayor’s role is often secondary.
In Philadelphia, the vast majority of land use decisions, small or momentous, are made individually by City Council’s 10 members, who represent geographical districts across the city. (The remaining seven members are elected at large.) The practice, which is grounded in legislative tradition rather than law, is known as “councilmanic prerogative.” It comes into play largely in the disposition of city-owned properties and in zoning matters, regardless of whether those decisions formally come before City Council as a whole.
Critics contend that the use of councilmanic prerogative, which frequently occurs out of the spotlight, undermines government accountability and transparency. They argue that it too often is used arbitrarily, that it hinders development, that it increases public mistrust of government, that it works to the advantage of the politically connected, and that its exercise sometimes allows narrow concerns to get in the way of citywide goals.
In council’s view, however, prerogative appropriately places power over projects involving land use in the hands of elected representatives of the communities that are most directly affected. District council members consider management of development projects to be one of their most basic and important responsibilities. By using prerogative, they say, they can stop or alter projects that are not good fits for neighborhoods, make quality developments even better, and, in some instances, secure funding for neighborhood organizations or initiatives. “Nobody knows a community better than the district council person that represents it,” says City Council President Darrell L. Clarke. “It’s just the simple reality.”
Community groups and developers, the people affected most directly by prerogative, have a more mixed view, dependent largely on outcomes of specific proposals and relationships with individual council members. Some community groups and builders work in concert—much if not all of the time—with district council members and City Planning Commission staff to shape developments in ways that respond to neighborhood concerns. Others consider prerogative an unwelcome intrusion into a process that some think should be apolitical.
This report on councilmanic prerogative is grounded in extensive analysis of city records and interviews with dozens of government officials, developers, political figures, academics, and community advocates. The analysis revealed that:
- 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 council approves sales, 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.
Through prerogative, district council members in Philadelphia are empowered to play a large, frequently determinative role in major building projects, enabling them to shape the city’s landscape in lasting ways.
Many have used that influence to persuade builders to alter proposed developments—for instance, by reducing scale or adding parking spaces—to make them more pleasing to the residents who live around them and more suitable for the neighborhood. Others employ prerogative as a hedge against rapid gentrification. Some use the leverage to induce developers to offer “community benefits,” such as financial assistance to neighborhood groups.
Much of the exercise of prerogative happens behind the scenes, a practice that some developers and community leaders consider one of its most troubling aspects. When prerogative is used to halt a proposed development at an early stage, there typically is no public record to document and explain what happened. This makes it difficult to gauge the full extent of prerogative in Philadelphia and the degree to which its exercise enhances or suppresses civic engagement. In addition, some developers say, prerogative creates opportunities for unethical behavior and at least the sense that campaign contributions are part of the price of doing business. Although nothing improper happens in the vast majority of cases, it is worth noting that council’s control over land use played a role in the cases of all six council members convicted of wrongdoing since 1981.