Brian O’Neill Wants to Expand Council’s Near-Absolute Power Over Development

A bill by the Northeast Philly legislator would enshrine Councilmanic prerogative into law.

CHICKEN KILLER: Councilman Brian O'Neill wants you to buy your eggs at the Acme. (Official City Council photo.)

Councilman Brian O’Neill represents the 10th District in Northeast Philly. | Photo courtesy of Philadelphia City Council

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with a response from Councilman Brian O’Neill.

Councilmanic prerogative is a tradition that gives City Council members a huge amount of control over development in the districts they represent. When a lawmaker wants to make a zoning change in his district, for example, the other 16 members will vote along with him as a matter of course. But it’s always been a gentleman’s agreement, not written down in city law.

It’s been talked about a lot lately. Earlier this month, a federal jury decided that Councilmanic prerogative is a power that’s ripe for abuse. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who was on the losing end of that verdict, worried that the decision could erode Council members’ ability to watch out for their constituents.

And now, a Council member appears to be writing the policy down. Last week, Councilman Brian O’Neill introduced a bill that would put prerogative on the books. The bill adjusts one of the more obscure parts of the zoning code: the preliminary review of plat adjustments. Those are the realignments of property lines and the subdividing of lots. Anytime you want to split one lot into two or combine three lots into one, you need to get it approved by the city.

Normally, the Planning Commission and the Streets Department review those adjustments. If O’Neill’s bill passes, those agencies won’t get a chance to weigh in unless the property owner furnishes a letter proving that the proposed change has the support of their district Council member. In other words, if the Council member doesn’t support it, sorry. No subdivision for you.

It’s not surprising that Councilmanic prerogative would work its way into the law books through the obscure corners of the zoning code. Big political power grabs are often delivered in boring packages.

O’Neill called Philly Mag back on Friday afternoon after this story was first published and said the bill is going to be amended. He didn’t mean for it to apply as broadly as the language in the bill suggests, he said.

The issue, according to O’Neill, is that property owners will sometimes get their “plat adjustments” preliminarily approved by the planning commission before clearing the projects they’re hoping to build with the Councilman or community members. Then when they get to the end of that process and it turns out neighbors object, the owner might say that Council is blocking a project that has already been approved by the planning commission. But in fact, the planning commission’s role is much more advisory, O’Neill said: The preliminary approval applies if a project meets all other code requirements, and if Council approves any necessary ordinances like striking or adjusting city streets. There’s no point in planning going through that process if Council’s not going to support necessary approvals on the other end, he argues.

“I just hate seeing time wasted and mis-impressions given,” O’Neill said.

He said he may amend the bill to require district Council members’ early approval only on projects that require a city ordinance at some point in the process. He’s not yet sure what the language will be.

In any event, the bill would still be the first legal codification of Councilmanic prerogative, even if the instances when it might come into play are relatively rare.

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