Officials debate regulating gifts to city workers

Posted: November 22, 2013

THE ETHICS Board, inspector general, chief integrity officer and watchdog Committee of Seventy usually spend their time scrutinizing city politicians and officials.

But yesterday, they turned their scrutiny on one another during an at-times heated debate over how to regulate the kinds of gifts city employees can accept.

The current law prohibits gifts of "substantial economic value," which is considered by some to be too vague. At issue was an Ethics Board proposal to limit cash gifts to $50 and noncash gifts to no more than $200 in value in situations that may affect employees' decision making.

Two Nutter administration officials, Inspector General Amy Kurland and Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman, urged the board to reject the proposal.

"This regulation creates more problems than it solves," said Markman, describing hypothetical scenarios in which officials could still solicit and accept gifts, like a nice watch. "This is just plain nuts!"

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said she would rather see the board ban cash gifts entirely and limit other gifts to those worth $50 or less.

"Only in very, very limited circumstances should any city employee be permitted to accept gifts," she said. "Nobody should send this message louder and clearer than this Board of Ethics."

Kaplan's comments prompted board member Brian McCormick to defend the work of the board's staff, saying he "took offense" to the suggestion that they were "hiding behind" the inadequacies of current law as an excuse for a bad regulation.

Kaplan said she didn't mean to criticize the staff or the board.

Former Ethics Board chair Richard Glazer attended the meeting and didn't plan to speak until he heard the other speakers.

"I was compelled to speak, because I did not think that the full context of what the staff did was being considered," he said after the meeting.

Glazer agrees that there needs to be a bright line for when gifts are acceptable. "The problem is that there have been, over decades, folks that have raised the issue," he said, "and it's just not right to have something where 'substantial economic value' is constantly being asked about and requested without there being any definition of it."

Board Executive Director Shane Creamer said that under current rules, gifts exceeding $200 could be permitted.

"People are losing sight at times that we're interpreting an existing law, and that law permits people to accept a certain level of gifts," he said. "Our proposed regulation would actually limit the types and amounts of gifts compared to past interpretations of the existing law."

The board could vote on the measure in its meeting next month or take additional time.


On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

Blog: ph.ly/PhillyClout

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