(Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting | Photo credit: Maria Pouchnikova)
What responsibility does the City have to ensure some baseline level of democratic practices in the Registered Community Organizations they deputize to host official public zoning meetings about development projects? A Northeast Times report from this week on recent zoning meeting in Mayfair provides a pretty compelling case that the City needs to go further than they've traditionally wanted to go in setting a floor for openness and inclusion.
A roof deck proposal for a restaurant and karaoke club opening at the former Teamsters building on Cottman Ave in Mayfair has been splitting neighbors along racial lines, with newer Chinese residents supporting the plan and older white residents opposing.
Those kinds of divisions are inevitable sometimes, but in this case there were some pretty disturbing allegations that Mayfair Civic Association members gamed the meeting registration process to exclude members of the Chinese community who wanted to vote for the project.
"Several members of the local Chinese community told the Northeast Times after the meeting that they felt the proceeding was permeated by racism and discrimination.
“I don’t think they gave Chinese the opportunity to speak,” said Pearl Huynh, president of the Northeast Philadelphia Chinese Association. “They treated the whole Chinese community with discrimination and disrespect.”
Huynh, Zheng and others said people who had a right to register with the civic association and vote on zoning matters were turned away.
“We felt that through the registration process, applicants were being treated unfairly,” Zheng said in a statement. “Qualified applicants were rejected for unknown reasons.”
Some were booted for not being citizens or using water bills to establish proof of residency, according to a group of Chinese residents who attended the meeting. They wanted to remain anonymous for fear of harassment."
If this were merely a private membership organization alleged to have strategically excluded eligible participants from participating in a vote on a private matter, that would be pretty scummy, but what raises this to the level of a policy failure is that in this case, the organization was an offical Registered Community Organization (RCO) deputized by the City to conduct a legally-required quasi-governmental process.
Every year, neighborhood organizations have to re-register with the City Planning Commission to be eligible to host public zoning meetings that are required by the City whenever somebody requests a zoning variance. The way the process works is that a developer applies for a zoning permit to L+I, and if the project doesn't meet the zoning code, that sets off a process where the local Registered Community Organization has to schedule a public meeting about the project, the RCO then forwards on their position to the Mayor-appointed Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA), and the ZBA decides whether to approve or not.
This essentially mimics the way meetings about zoning variances generally worked for the wealthier neighborhood civic associations prior to the 2012 zoning reform package, which for the first time enshrined a public participation requirement, resulting in the process described above. And a key decision made at that time was not to spin up a bunch of brand new elected neighborhood boards like the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in Washington, DC, which are actually on the ballot during normal general elections every few years.
Instead, City Council and zoning reformers decided to work through the existing organizations like neighborhood civic associations or even partisan Ward organizations, and just have them apply to become official Registered Civic Associations authorized to host city zoning meetings in addition to the rest of their activities. That choice came with an important tension though, where, because many of these groups are actually private non-profits—not publicly-elected bodies—the City has wanted to tread very lightly in imposing any particular rules on how these groups operate generally.
To be approved for RCO status now, they're required to have regular elections, but the City doesn't impose any hard and fast rules or minimum standards of openness concerning membership, board election requirements, frequency of elections, dues, or other applicable areas that feedback into how open or not the organization is in fulfilling their official City duties.
For one example, the Center City Residents Association is designated as an official RCO by the City Planning Commission, and charges annual dues of $55 for residents to become a member, or $40 for people under 35 years old. Anybody in the neighborhood can attend their zoning meetings if they find out about them, but the zoning-related emails only go out to paying members. What's more, they've recently been conducting a questionable "Near Neighbors Pilot Program" where people who live near properties up for zoning variances can get a special private meeting with the developer before the official RCO meeting to pre-negotiate changes before anybody else gets to weigh in.
"Both CCRA and Variance applicants typically take the input of near neighbors very seriously. However, there is no procedure under the law to allow applicants to meet with their near neighbors prior to making a formal RCO presentation. As a result, applicants may sometimes learn about serious near neighbor concerns for the first time at CCRA’s Zoning Committee meeting. When that happens, applicants often choose to go back to the drawing board to tweak their plans, and they usually seek a continuance (or multiple continuances) from the ZBA while negotiations with neighbors are ongoing [...]
In order to improve the process, CCRA is instituting a Near Neighbors Meeting Pilot Program where we will help facilitate communication between applicants and near neighbors prior to the formal CCRA Zoning Committee meeting to consider the application."
That's an extreme example of an exclusive process that's tolerated by the Planning Commission, but there are varying shades of exclusionary rules and practices in play in many places, and it's time for city officials to recognize their culpability in this by failing to set some slightly higher standards for democratic process as a condition for receiving RCO status. It's understandable on some level why the City hasn't wanted to take the edit pen to private organizations' bylaws, but at the same time, if they're going to be in the business of designating organizations as approved hosts of a city-required function, ensuring some higher minimum standards of democracy comes with the territory.