Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill on Thursday that could establish “standards of conduct” for the many Registered Community Organizations (RCOs) that host neighborhood meetings and negotiate with developers over construction projects.
Johnson recently spoke out after community members reportedly made anti-Semitic comments at a zoning meeting in Point Breeze, which is in Johnson’s district. In last week’s City Council meeting, he said he had contacted the Human Relations Commission and the Anti-Defamation League about the incident, and had begun talking with the City Planning Commission about potential changes to RCO procedures.
“I’ll be the first to say that gentrification is a controversial issue about which people often disagree …” Johnson said after Council’s meeting last week. “I would like to clearly state for the record that hateful comments about one’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation will not and should never be tolerated.”
According to the Daily News, the anti-Semitic comments were attributed to members of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, a small RCO that has fought market-rate development and a host of zoning measures in the neighborhood for years. In January, Tiffany Green and Theresa McCormick publicly accused the City Planning Commission of racism after the Commission voted to support a development project at 20th and Wharton. In his comments to Council last week, Johnson said that the group and its remarks don’t reflect Point Breeze as a whole.
The bill Johnson introduced on Thursday stops short of calling for a specific code of conduct. Instead, it authorizes the Planning Commission to establish standards in its own regulations. Johnson to declined to say what he thought those standards should be.
“Organizations with RCO status have an official relationship with the City of Philadelphia, so we must ensure that they operate with a level of decency and order,” Johnson said in a statement. “The vast majority of RCOs work very hard and play a vital function in the development process. This bill will hold all RCOs to the same standard and ensure that there is a level of accountability."
Planning Commission representatives weren’t available to discuss the proposal.
The rules regarding RCOs, which were established in the new zoning code adopted in 2011, have changed several times in the past few years. Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has been a force behind some of those changes. Her first change to the rules was introduced out of concern that the code gave an advantage to well-off neighborhood groups while keeping small or unfunded groups out of the development process. That concern was stoked in part by Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, whose members seem to have Blackwell’s ear even if their own Council representative wants to keep his distance.
After Johnson addressed Council, Blackwell responded by saying that in some gentrifying neighborhoods, new residents will start their own community groups and then attempt to pack zoning meetings held by other long-standing groups in order to sway their votes.
“People have a right to their neighborhoods, a right to live in their neighborhoods and control those activities that happen,” Blackwell said. “And nobody has a right to come in and try to displace them.”
Johnson has held off on implementing neighborhood-wide zoning changes in his district, telling PlanPhilly in 2014 that he prefers to approach zoning on a case-by-case basis.