Kenyatta Johnson Vs. Ori Feibush Starts Today. Here’s What You Need to Know

Developer and one-time political challenger Feibush is suing 2nd District Councilman Johnson in federal court. It's a big, big deal.

Kenyatta Johnson. Photo | Jeff Fusco. Ori Feibush. Photo | Creative Commons SA 2.5,

Kenyatta Johnson. Photo | Jeff Fusco. Ori Feibush. Photo | Creative Commons SA 2.5

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The city-owned properties in question have not been sold. 

Jury selection starts this morning in developer Ori Feibush’s federal lawsuit against Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. The case is the second culmination of the years-long drama between the two Point Breeze residents; the first was Johnson’s decisive victory over Feibush in the 2nd District Council race last spring. Can he fight off another Feibush attack? 

The Complaint

In his lawsuit (below), Feibush claims that he was prevented from buying two vacant lots from the city by Johnson. Johnson decided to block the sale of those lots because Feibush was mounting a campaign to take Johnson’s Council seat, the complaint says. Feibush says that was political retribution, an abuse of Johnson’s office, and a violation of his own constitutional rights.

What the Court Will Decide

Most of Feibush’s suit was dismissed on the grounds of “legislative immunity,” a doctrine meaning lawmakers can’t be sued for the work they do as lawmakers. However, one count remains, claiming that Johnson “developed and maintained policies, practices, procedures and customs exhibiting deliberate indifference to the Constitutional rights of persons …” That’s called the Monell claim, a reference to a precedential Supreme Court case holding that local governments can be held liable for depriving citizens of their civil rights.

Councilmanic Prerogative

The case will functionally put Councilmanic Prerogative on trial, as Chris Sawyer pointed out on Philadelinquency last week. Councilmanic Prerogative, or Councilmanic Privilege, is an unwritten tradition that allows each district representative in City Council to functionally control development and land sales in his or her district. If the 3rd-District councilwoman wants to rezone a property, for instance, the other 16 members of City Council will virtually always vote with her. If the 6th-District councilman wants to approve a land sale in his district, again, it’ll probably be a unanimous vote. This gives district council members a huge amount of influence.

Sales of some city-owned land are handled through the Vacant Property Review Committee, an appointed group that tends to fly through approvals as long as there aren’t major problems with a proposed use. But after that happens, sales have to be approved by City Council, and that’s where prerogative comes in. (It also comes in earlier, because Council functionally controls the VPRC agenda.)

At any rate, Johnson didn’t introduce a resolution to sell two of the properties Feibush wanted. He set them aside instead for what he said was going to be affordable-housing development. Johnson points out that he had already supported the sale of half a dozen other properties to Feibush — after Feibush declared he was running against him.

An FBI Investigation?

This weekend, the Inquirer reported that the FBI is actually looking into the city’s land-sale process more generally. The revelation was apparently contained inside a deposition in the Feibush-Johnson case that starts today. A staffer at the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority said that the FBI had been asking about the PRA’s policy for moving properties.

The properties in question in this week’s trial were owned by the Department of Public Property, not the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

This is Gonna Be Fun

Seriously. This could get interesting. Stay tuned.

Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.