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Philly's Special City Council Election Gives District Seat Replacements A Councilmanic Prerogative Test Drive

As four of Philadelphia City Council's 17 members vacate their posts to run for mayor, their seats are set to be filled Nov. 8 in a special election held in conjunction with the midterms, including two that represent council districts.

Those already influential seats have gained significant power over land use and zoning in the past few years.

Now all eyes will be on what the nominees to fill them do with that authority in what is setting up to be a test in exercising councilmanic prerogative — the longstanding tradition of the overall body deferring to district members on zoning, land use and development issues in the areas they represent.

Philadelphia City Hall

Democratic Party leadership handpicks the candidates who run in special elections and, due to Philly’s deep blue demographics, they are virtually assured a victory. As a result of that process, the four replacements are well-connected in city politics and likely to follow established norms.

In Philly, that means the continued primacy of councilmanic prerogative.

The winners of the special election are expected to be sworn in about 20 days after Election Day, a spokesperson for Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke told Bisnow. With both nominees for district seats planning to run for a full term in next year’s May primary, that leaves what amounts to a six-month sneak peek for constituents, advocacy groups and industry lobbies at how the nominees will wield their councilmanic prerogative power if given four more years.

“For us, it’s a good chance to see some of the names that are out there that can fill the seats and to see how they will do this year in terms of good, sound policies, specifically housing policies, that gets the city in a better place,” Building Industry Association of Philadelphia Vice President Mo Rushdy said. 

After City Councilmember Cherelle Parker resigned her seat representing District 9 to launch her mayoral campaign, Mayor Jim Kenney vetoed a zoning overlay bill she had passed that would require special zoning exemptions for several forms of businesses, most notably smoke shops, in her district.

It was a rare veto from Kenney, especially during a second term for which he has been widely criticized for being disengaged.

It was also one that produced immediate consequences. With council requiring 13 votes to override a veto and more council seats expected to be vacated in the coming months, Clarke then issued a writ calling for a special election to fill all four open seats on Election Day, rather than only filling the two district seats on Election Day as he had said a week earlier

“You might have seen the mayor become more interested in sanding off the rough edges of zoning legislation that comes out of council, or at least negotiate a little more” if council seats were to remain unfilled, said Jon Geeting, engagement director for urbanist advocacy organization Philadelphia 3.0. “The administration has generally avoided issuing vetoes on anything they weren’t trying to make a big public deal about. They don’t want to just make people mad for no reason if a veto is going to get overridden.”

City Council President Darrell Clarke, speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony for The Hamilton.

In a statement announcing his decision hours after Kenney vetoed Parker’s bill, Clarke cited the need to protect an override of vetos as the reason for taking action that will delay the printing and sending of mail-in ballots — a move that could depress turnout in Philly for the midterm elections, in which it is expected to be a Democrat stronghold in pivotal state races.

Through a representative, Clarke declined to comment beyond his announcement.

“Calling the special election is a pretty obvious move by Clarke to keep the councilmanic prerogative math working,” Geeting said.

Anthony Phillips, executive director of the adolescent leadership training nonprofit Youth Action, was nominated by District 9 ward leaders to succeed Parker, who has been criticized by the pro-development community for using councilmanic prerogative to change her district’s zoning rules to be more restrictive of development. 

Phillips is beginning his campaign and preparing for his time on council with a community listening tour to hammer home the idea that he will attempt to respond directly to resident concerns, he told Bisnow. He also welcomes engagement with the business side, saying he prides himself on his ability to facilitate compromises between “apples and oranges.”

“Let’s be real: Not everyone will get what they want, but everyone can come out excited about a product, because they will feel good that at the end of the day, leadership listened and found a way to make sure that something positive came out of the circumstance,” Phillips said.

Phillips plans to take Parker’s bill back up and negotiate to get it passed again in some form, he said, expressing admiration for how Parker based her zoning policies, including the vetoed bill, on direct engagement with constituents. But no one, not even Parker, would be happy if Phillips didn’t create his own identity as a legislator, he said.

“The reality is that the work I do as a councilmember will ultimately mirror the work I’ll do throughout the campaign,” Phillips said. “The campaign is the work.”

Post Brothers President Matt Pestronk, Philadelphia City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sanchez and Center City District CEO Paul Levy.

The nominee to replace Maria Quiñones-Sánchez in District 7 is her former staffer and preferred successor Quetcy Lozada, who has worked as a vice president of community organizing for Esperanza, a faith-based organization that also serves as a registered community organization to weigh in on potential developments within its service area.

Lozada’s experience on Quiñones-Sánchez’s staff and at Esperanza set her up to hit the ground running and do real policy work right off the bat, Quiñones-Sánchez told Bisnow.

“The other day, we were having a zoning conversation about several cases that are up [for debate] in the district now,” Quiñones-Sánchez said of Lozada. 

Quiñones-Sánchez was the first district councilmember to resign and run for mayor this election cycle and is a staunch defender of councilmanic prerogative “when done right.”

“When we talk about councilmanic prerogative as it's related to the [Philadelphia] Land Bank, do you want a third-level administrative person who maybe has never even walked the streets of the 7th District make a land use decision?” Quiñones-Sánchez said. “Or the mayor? What makes you think the mayor wouldn’t make those decisions to reward some folks or punish others?”

Though her predecessor won four terms in council without support from the city’s party apparatus, Lozada managed to win the support of her district’s ward leaders in part by being seen as more moderate and more of a negotiator, Billy Penn reports.

In dealing with development in District 7, that could mark a departure from Quiñones-Sánchez, who co-authored the first mandatory inclusionary zoning bill in the city and attempted several different methods of taxing developers more heavily through the years. 

“It’s about the person, the personality, and they can disagree with us, but it’s about whether we can work with them,” Rushdy said. “Are they willing to roll up their sleeves, identify a problem and work to reach that solution? Or are we going to get standoffish people who stand on principle and see us as a liability in terms of housing policy?”

It appears industry advocates — and Philly voters — are about to get six months to find out.