Over at Next City I bring the political theory on Councilmanic Prerogative and the land bank:
In his 1989 essay “Why Parties?,” political scientist Thomas Schwartz proposed a theory of how party behavior could originate in a three-person legislature. He observed that there would be great temptation for two of the lawmakers to join together and pass legislation for the benefit of their constituents, while shifting all the costs onto the constituents of the third.
This two-person alliance would result in a “long coalition” because, by resolving to cooperate across a whole range of different issues, the two lawmakers can ensure that a majority of constituents always wins an outsized share of the benefits of governance, and a minority of constituents always gets shafted with an outsized share of the costs. This stabilizes politics in our fictional legislature, since the arrangement will satisfy a comfortable majority of permanent winners, while the permanent losers cannot easily depose the two dominant lawmakers without a major reorganization at the top.
The logic of the “long coalition” can explain politician behavior in larger legislatures as well, and is the foundation of the councilmanic prerogative tradition so cherished by District representatives of the Philadelphia City Council.
Councilmanic prerogative is an unwritten agreement between Philly’s 10 District councilmembers, whereby each representative is afforded total authority over land use and development issues in his or her district, such as zoning changes or the transfer of city-owned properties. Whenever there is a vote concerning land use, each District councilmember — as opposed to the seven elected at large — will vote in deference to the given district’s representative, who will in turn vote to protect the organized groups within districts who elect them.
Since municipal politics is mostly about growth and development issues, the default District party political platform is heavy on pandering to better-organized longtime residents who have a taste for stopping new things from happening. Narrow neighborhood-level interests are the permanent winners of this long coalition, and citywide interest the permanent loser.
The editors sensibly chopped a lot out of what would have been a very long piece indeed for those not intensely interested in Philadelphia land use politics, but this is a blog and my space constraints here are limited only by your attention span, so I’ll finish the point.
The Councilmanic Prerogative institution feeds on discretion. If you want to create a land bank that actually succeeds in reducing the supply of city-owned land, then you have to remove some discretion from the land disposition process, not add more.
Where I ended up going with this in the longer draft version was that making all land disposition proposals pass three different boards, and satisfy what sounds like some very subjective criteria in the Strategic Plan, is going to leave you with a bank that hoards too much land.
The St. Louis political system is a lot like Philadelphia’s, with lots of power for aldermen over land use, and that’s what happened to them when they tried to turn their land bank into a vehicle for sweeping social justice policy reforms, rather than a simple tool for buying and selling land at market-approximate prices.
I’m worried we’re going to get the land-hoarding kind of land bank, and the reason I think we’re probably going to get it is that the minimum winning political coalition – the big coalition needed to get a bill through City Council – contains a lot of different organizations committed to including vague discretion-expanding social policy goals, and politicians are going to abuse that discretion to keep on with the usual Councilmanic Prerogative mischief. A smaller coalition probably doesn’t have the political strength to actually pass a land bank, but a coalition this broad probably isn’t going to be able to agree on the optimal policy.