Philadelphia voters approve ballot question to front the cost of lawsuits for community organizations

The ballot question asked voters if the city should help RCOs pay the costs of lawsuits.

A voter marks their ballot at a polling place in Bristol, Pa., Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

A voter marks their ballot at a polling place in Bristol, Pa., Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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A ballot question asking voters if the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter should be amended to require the city to help registered community organizations (RCOs) pay the costs of lawsuits was approved by voters in Pennsylvania’s primary election on Tuesday.

RCOs provide input when a landowner requests an exception from standard zoning rules, called a variance. RCOs have faced lawsuits related to their participation in the variance request process. A statement from the city government on the ballot question says these “can be costly and limit community input.”

For example, in 2013, the Old City Civic Association dissolved after repeated lawsuits led its insurance carrier to drop the group and it couldn’t get new insurance. Another RCO, the Greater Bustleton Civic League, saw premiums increase 12-fold last year.

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According to WHYY’s Billy Penn, developers sometimes sue the officers of RCOs who oppose projects or ask for concessions. The suits may or may not have legal merit, and are sometimes described as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs, meant to intimidate critics.

Amendments to the Home Rule Charter must be adopted by City Council and then approved by voters. Then Council President Darrell Clarke introduced the amendment in October and Council unanimously approved it in November.

Supporters of the measure say it is welcomed news for RCOs in the city, while detractors say it gives community organizations a “blank check” to fight developers.

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