Council members: It's our prerogative

The day after a federal jury found that City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson had wrongfully blocked a developer's attempts to buy land in his district, several of his colleagues offered a defense.

Of Johnson, yes. But more so of the unwritten veto power he was accused of wielding for his own political gain.

"This whole criticism of councilmanic prerogative, I do have a problem with," said Councilman William K. Greenlee. "Obviously, if Council was not supposed to be involved in this, they wouldn't be a part of the process."

A jury on Wednesday ruled in favor of developer Ori Feibush, who claimed that Johnson blocked his attempts to buy two city-owned lots as a form of political revenge. At the time, Feibush was running to unseat Johnson in the Second District.

Johnson said he held the lots for affordable housing but sold Feibush six others.

The jury awarded Feibush $34,000, which - if Johnson's plans to appeal are unsuccessful - will be paid with taxpayer funds.

Johnson blocked the sale using councilmanic prerogative, the long-standing deference Council members give to their colleagues on land-use decisions in their districts.

Minutes after the verdict was announced, Feibush's attorney, Wally Zimolong, suggested that its repercussions might be far-reaching, asking, "Now that the precedent has been set . . . what happens next?"

On Thursday, others raised the same point.

"I guess the question is, does it open up the gates for similar suits," said Jeremy Nowak, former president of the William Penn Foundation and an expert in urban development.

Council members didn't seem to share the same concern. While many of Johnson's colleagues on Thursday said they didn't know his case well enough to weigh in, they also said councilmanic prerogative isn't something they're looking to lose.

"We are the ones who are entrusted to know what the issues are, and sometimes make decisions on the better interest of a district that folks don't like," said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sànchez.

Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. said the verdict wouldn't give him pause about how he exercises the power, "because I'm never going to abuse it. I'm always going to put the interest of my district first."

Mayor Kenney, too, said he sees benefits to the practice, saying a Council member should be able to stall a project if a developer hasn't adequately addressed concerns of the community. He also questioned the practicality of tossing something that's just tradition.

"What are you tossing out? It's not like we're going to change Rules 6-3 of the city code. Because it doesn't exist. It's in here," he said, pointing to his head.

Two years after Johnson blocked the sale of the lots, Council on Thursday passed an ordinance he introduced transferring them and several other properties to the newly created Philadelphia Land Bank.

Feibush said he never took his eyes off the lots. In fact, he said, he and his attorney had offered to settle the case if the city allowed him to buy the properties and covered his legal fees. Feibush said the city denied the offer.

So will he try to buy them again?

"Of course," Feibush said Thursday. "I've already put in an expression of interest."

tnadolny@phillynews.com

215-854-2730@TriciaNadolny

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