Hearing held to examine lawsuits against Registered Community Organizations

RCOs make their case against SLAPP lawsuits.

Councilman Bobby Henon addressing the concerns of Civic Association leaders. JOHN COLE/TIMES PHOTOS

Last Wednesday, City Council held a hearing examining the challenges faced by Registered Community Organizations from lawsuits commonly known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

These SLAPP lawsuits have targeted RCOs from across the city. Twenty-plus different representatives from civic associations expressed their concern at being targeted by these frivolous lawsuits. Many Northeast Philadelphia civic associations were in attendance at this hearing.

Some RCOs across the city have been targeted by developers over land-use dispute lawsuits. These developers then intend to make the RCOs that they target spend large amounts of money to defend themselves. As a result, a couple of RCOs have had difficulty obtaining and affording insurance coverage because of the high cost to defend themselves against these lawsuits.

“A SLAPP lawsuit is a perverse, weaponized version of a legal process,” said Joe Schiavo, former board member of the Old City Civic Association, which fell victim to SLAPP lawsuits and could no longer afford to exist.

Councilman Bobby Henon has heard these concerns from various civic associations within his district and hopes the situation will be rectified through legislation.

“I want our RCOs and community organizations to be the pillar of our communities,” said Henon. He believes they should be able to feel “unafraid to state their views and hold a civic and tolerant discourse in the public.”

Senate Bill 95, in the state House, is trying to address the matter, but the bill is stuck in the Judiciary Committee. This bill would protect civic associations/organizations from these lawsuits.

Connie DeLury, of the Tacony Civic Association, recognizes the development boom in the city of Philadelphia and believes SLAPP lawsuit legislation would not curtail it.

“We aren’t anti-development,” said DeLury. “We’re simply people who love our neighborhoods, just help us.”

Councilman Al Taubenberger shared the opinion of those testifying and believes the city wouldn’t be the same without them.

“The city would be entirely different without RCOs,” said Taubenberger. “For our city to thrive, they must thrive.”

Some civic associations in attendance are well established and have been active for decades in their communities and some are just in their infancy, but share the common fear of these lawsuits.

Linda Colwell-Smith, vice president of the Holme Circle Civic Association, was happy that the group celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, but without legislation fears “the next 10 years might not happen.”

Members of Council in attendance expressed the best way to handle this dilemma is for SB95 to pass the state legislature. Various states across the country already have legislation that protects RCOs from SLAPP lawsuits. Time will tell if Pennsylvania will be the next state to follow suit. ••

John Cole can be reached at JCole@bsmphilly.com