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July 23, 2015

Pew report: City Council 'unfailingly' honors Councilmanic prerogative

Researchers could not find a case in which a prerogative vote failed in six years

Pew Research City Council
Carroll - Philadelphia Skyline Buildings Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia skyline.

Councilmanic prerogative — the legislative practice enabling individual city council members to make nearly every land use decision within their district — is "unfailingly honored" by Philadelphia City Council, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released Thursday.

Researchers did not find a case in which a prerogative vote went against the wishes of a district council member, even when a project was widely considered to be of citywide importance. In the six years examined, 726 of the 730 prerogative decisions were unanimous. Only six total dissenting votes were cast in the other four cases.

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

The report revealed that prerogative often is exercised to block the sale of city-owned land, at least temporarily. Due to a lack of available data, researchers could not determine whether prerogative is a principal factor in delaying the pace of those sales. Any land transaction can take months or years to complete.

The report also claimed the city's land bank, created in 2013 to oversee disposition of vacant, city-owned land, ensures prerogative "will remain a central feature of land disposition in Philadelphia." The city's zoning code, adopted in 2012 to streamline development, has not reduced council's involvement in zoning decisions.

Opponents of councilmanic prerogative say the process undermines government accountability and transparency because it often takes place out of the spotlight and without a public record to document what happened, the report said. Council members say prerogative places power in the hands of those representing the communities most directly affected by development.

The complete report can be found here