Stu Bykofsky: Did board DROP ethical ball?

Posted: March 04, 2010

BY MOST accounts, the three-year-old Philadelphia Board of Ethics has done a good job of enforcing ethical behavior on those who draw a city paycheck.

While effectively guarding the city henhouse, last month it unexpectedly turned into a fox to retain one of its own, general counsel Evan Meyer. Looking deep into its civic soul, the Ethics Board agreed that Meyer, who had enrolled in DROP - the Deferred Retirement Option Plan - could retire, collect his pension bonus, then return to work.

This boondoggle boomerang - retire, collect cash, return to work - is a practice that's infuriated some citizens, columnists and editorial writers for several years.

For the Ethics Board to approve it for itself is like Alcoholics Anonymous holding a beef- and-beer fundraiser. There are some things you shouldn't do because they just don't look right.

The biggest DROP roars erupted when elected officials dipped into the honey pot (hello, City Council), because the program wasn't intended for them, but outrage extends to appointed officials because they are breaking the terms of the contract.

The Ethics Board is supposed to - duh! - ensure ethical behavior, and this looks like squeezing through a loophole in a dubious program.

Ethics Board Chairman Richard Glazer disagrees that it is a loophole. Rehiring "is permitted by DROP. There was no loophole, there's no gray area, there's no ambiguity," he told me yesterday.

Started in 1999, DROP was supposedly designed to retain

senior personnel and give supervisors a method for advance planning. In exchange for picking a date certain for retirement up to four years out, employees' pension payments were set aside in an interest-bearing account while they received their salary. Managers had up to four years to find and train replacements.

Two things: First, can't supervisors just ask staffers about their retirement plans? Workers wouldn't have had to pinky-swear, just declare their intentions.

Second, four years to train a replacement?

What job in city government requires four years of training, the length of time it takes to earn a college degree? Is the city turning street sweepers into microbiologists?

This is stupid times two, and an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Dream up a program to solve one problem, don't think deeply enough, and you've created a new problem.

To be fair, I hear that Meyer is highly competent, and the approximate $183,000 his pension pot contains isn't the largest around, but that's not the point.

DROP requires a date certain for retirement, not a date certain for faux retirement, after which you simply return to work.

With Meyer's retirement known four years in advance, "the Board has had more than enough time for succession planning," Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg wrote to Ethics Board Chairman Richard Glazer, asking him to reverse the decision.

The decision raises questions about whether the Ethics Board "holds itself to the same high standards as it demands of other parts of city government," Stalberg wrote.

Glazer said that he doesn't agree that DROP was necessarily designed for succession planning and that Stalberg "conflates an ethical issue with a personnel issue."

The decision to rehire Meyer "was an easy one," said Glazer. "To refuse to hire him because we'd get blowback would be a lack of courage to do what's right."

In an earlier statement, Glazer said that not rehiring Meyer "would be wrong, self-defeating and not serve any public interest."

That's how I regard DROP - wrong, self-defeating and serving no public interest.

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