Prescription drugs are an interesting paradox. When taken in the right dosage, prescription medicine can save your life. However, if you take too large of a dosage you risk killing yourself. Civic Associations that posit an similar paradox. On one hand, these associations give a voice to citizens who are rightfully concerned with the type and location of development in their neighborhood. On the other hand, these Associations can easily become a means to promote the personal – often anti-development – agendas of their leadership.
A story in the Philadelphia Daily News about the disbanding of the Old City Civic Association because of mounting legal fees underscores the problems with this paradox. According to the story, the well known – or infamous – Old City Civic Association has voted to disband because of mounting legal fees from suits brought by developers who drew the ire of the OCCA. Supporters of the OCCA fear that “deep pocketed” developers will now run rough shot of their neighborhood. Opponents of the OCCA are no doubt cheering the news of the demise of their meddlesome foe.
According to the story, civic groups are asking for legislative action granting them immunity from lawsuits for their actions. The problem with this “solution” is that civic associations and their leaders are not accountable to anyone. At least with elected officials the public can hold them accountable at the ballot box and their are actions in office are regulated by constitutional controls and ethics rules. Furthermore, judicial review of their legislative actions is available. Not so with civic groups, who are both un-elected and who have no real constitutional or legislative authority. Therefore, if they are immune from lawsuits what can the frustrated public or a wronged developer do? This is especially true when, unfortunately as is often the case, the association becomes a vehicle for the personal agendas of their board members.
What should be happening is the power granted to civic associations should be regulated and codified. By doing this, the community can be assured that its voice is maintained and developers can be assured of the integrity and fairness of the group.