Worried civic groups call on Philly to help out with insurance

The death of a Philadelphia civic group is raising concerns about the vulnerability of similar organizations across the city.  Community leaders say it’s time for the city to step up and protect them.

Sometimes, when a community group is sued, the directors and officers of the organizations are named individually as well.  Enter something called directors and officers insurance.  It protects those people.  But buying that sort of insurance can get very expensive if the community group becomes the target of a bunch of legal action – even if it wins in court.   That scenario dealt the fatal blow to the Old City Civic Association.

So what’s the solution?

Matt Ruben is the president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association, a group that’s been around more than 30 years.

“If the city could create an umbrella policy that organizations could buy into, I think that would be very useful and the problem that Old City Civic had was … that they couldn’t find anyone to insure them at all,” he said. “So if the city had an umbrella policy that could help with that situation and I doubt it would cost that much money.”

Over and over community leaders from across Philadelphia point out that the city’s new zoning code gives a bigger, more formal role to “registered community organizations.” So, these groups say, shouldn’t the city do more to protect them and keep them alive?

Jeff Hornstein is president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association. 

“Folks in Fishtown are very worried,” he said. “Anywhere that large-scale, private development is happening.  I’ve heard from friends in Logan Square that they’re worried about this because there’s a lot of big development going on there and if community groups show up and make noise and the developer thinks it’s going to slow down their project then they have incentive to squash it.”

City Councilman Mark Squilla says he’d like to find a way to protect other community organizations from suffering the fate of Old City Civic. 

“We were looking to ask risk management if the Law Department would be able to indemnify the RCO’s by either representing them in any type of legal action that is taken against them that would have something to do with zoning or a development in their area,” he said. “Or would it be a possibility to form an umbrella organization?  We are still waiting for a response from them.”

Squilla says this is an important issue for city government to work on because Council members rely on community groups to give their input on development and changes in the community.

Other lawmakers are getting involved as well. State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, plans to introduce legislation to protect community groups from lawsuits against public participation that are brought to intimidate the opposition.

Peter Gold, a former member of the Old City Civic, said even the threat of legal action chills neighborhood activism.

“You could also have that same pressure on other civic organizations to be very careful what they say and how they say it and actually sort of withdraw from giving honest views about what would be going on in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Ruben, from Northern Liberties, says it’s likely that a number of civic groups active in land use issues around the city lack directors and officers insurance.  Those people, Ruben says, could be at serious legal and financial risk.

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