By Mike Dunn


PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A new study puts a long-standing and controversial City Council tradition under the microscope and finds that the practice called “Councilmanic Prerogative” has pluses and minuses.

Councilmanic prerogative is a tradition in which a district council member can approve, or reject a planned development and other council members yield to that decision. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts finds both good and bad in this practice.

Larry Eichel, director of the study, says district lawmakers can use this hammer to get more for the community.

“Council members often use prerogative to get projects changed in ways that fit better with the neighborhood. Sometimes they get developers to fund projects that will benefit the people who live in the neighborhood. At its best, councilman prerogative is a way for residents, acting through their elected representatives, to have a meaningful voice in determining what gets built in their neighborhoods and how.”

The Pew Study also notes several perceived downsides to prerogative.

“Critics will contend that because its being done behind closed doors in many cases, and in some aspects, that it can undermine government accountability and transparency, that it can be arbitrary and that it can work to the advantage of the politically connected,” says Eichel.

Councilmanic prerogative is a tradition only. It is not written in either the City Charter or the City Code. Eichel says Philadelphia is by no means the only city with such a practice.

“Its a relatively common political tradition, particularly in larger, older cities such as New York and Chicago, where representatives to council are elected by district.”

Councilman prerogative is here to stay, but the Pew study notes that ethics advocates are pushing for reforms.

“One of the things they mention is making council members disclose why they reject bids to buy city land,” Eichel says.

But as the Pew study notes, “Any proposal to change prerogative is sure to face stiff opposition within City Council.”

The study can be found at pewtrusts.org/philaresearch.