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Councilmember’s Trial Highlights the Need for Reforms to Ethics Rules and Council Prerogative

The trial of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, has ended with a deadlocked jury. The council member was charged with accepting bribes in the form of a $67,000 consulting contract to Ms.Chavous from individuals seeking Johnson’s help with properties inside his district. Federal prosecutors have stated that they intend to pursue another trial.

The public will have to wait for a final outcome in this case. In the meantime, there is work to be done to bolster Philadelphians’ trust in City Hall. That will require strengthening the city’s public integrity laws to mitigate the potential for fraud and abuse, and to mitigate the influence of big money in our politics and elections. Seventy has regularly called for reforms that would address some of these concerns such as the creation of a permanent inspector general with purview across all of city government. It’s also essential that the Ethics Board be fully funded to enforce the existing ethics, lobbying, and campaign-finance laws, especially with millions of dollars expected to be spent in the 2023 municipal races. But since the convictions of Councilmember Bobby Henon and Local 98 business manager John Dougherty last November, City Council has yet to advance any reform. They should start by addressing conflicts of interest and outside jobs — matters that sit at the heart of these most recent trials.

Councilmember Derek Green has already introduced legislation, Bill No. 220047, that would modernize the rules regarding conflicts of interest. The current provisions in the city’s Ethics Code, which have gone untouched since the 1950s, are difficult to interpret and enforce. Green’s proposal rewrites them to clarify language around the issues raised in the Local 98 trial regarding employers and public officials, as well as potential conflicts of interest involving family members — the issue raised in Councilmember Johnson’s trial. The sooner this legislation is taken up for consideration, the sooner these antiquated provisions can be transformed into clear rules with no room for misinterpretation.

The more complicated matter raised by Councilmember Johnson’s trial is council prerogative, the unwritten practice of City Council deferring to members on land-use decisions within their districts. This trial highlighted Councilmember Johnson’s use of prerogative in two different instances: his 2014 support of a zoning ordinance that would impact the historic Royal Theater on South Street, and his decision that same year to block the Redevelopment Authority’s attempt to reclaim a vacant property nearby.

Nearly 730 bills related to land use and zoning were passed by City Council via prerogative from 2008 to 2014, according to a 2015 Pew report. But because prerogative can be exercised in other ways in which there will be no record — the abandonment of a given project because of lack of support from the councilmember, for example — there is no comprehensive set of data on its use or impact.

The merits of prerogative are debatable. Proponents stress the need for councilmembers to play a role in advocating for local residents, while critics point to the undercutting of strategic planning in how to use scarce land in a growing city. But the practice has assuredly created ethical risks for the ten members who are empowered to decide unilaterally what happens with land sales and zoning in their districts. This spurred not only the investigation and trial that just concluded, but it has also led to the convictions of six Philadelphia Council members since 1981.

Finding a solution to the complicated issues around council prerogative won’t be simple. But with major elections for City Council approaching next year and multiple members expected to run for mayor, now is the time to begin in earnest a public discussion over how land is used in Philadelphia and who has the power to make those decisions. Individuals running for district council seats should be prepared to speak to what changes they would support to bring greater transparency and accountability to prerogative. Candidates for mayor should have an overarching vision for how the city should grow in a way that benefits all Philadelphians, and be prepared to serve as an appropriate check on behalf of a plan for city land and development that reflects shared values and goals. Otherwise Philadelphia, in some crucial ways, will continue to resemble 10 cities instead of one.

This trial is over, but the thorny questions surrounding council prerogative will remain a source of conflict, frustration and risk in our city. Left unaddressed, it may only be a matter of time before we find ourselves facing another lengthy trial that threatens to further damage the public trust in our government.

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