Board still struggling with Phila. gift rule

Posted: December 20, 2013

PHILADELPHIA Taking a cue from heated testimony previously offered on a proposed set of gift regulations, the city Board of Ethics staff Wednesday released its latest, more-stringent version of the rules.

The staff proposed barring City of Philadelphia officers and employees from accepting any gifts worth more than $100 per year, including $25 in cash, from any nonfamily source. Those limits are half what was proposed at November's meeting.

But the board and other ethics advocates are still not happy with the limits and the overall language. The only consensus: that City Council should change the existing gifts ordinance to allow the board to impose stricter rules than the ones now allowed.

The proposed rules are meant to better define the current law, which says no city officer or employee can solicit or receive any gift, gratuity, or service of "substantial economic value" that could influence that person's discharge of official duties.

The proposal makes exceptions for gifts from close relatives, and bars gratuities of any kind - such as tips for city workers' doing their jobs.

But the big problem the board and watchdog groups still have is the part about cash gifts.

"I can't imagine putting my name to something that allows solicitation or something that allows cash," said board member Sanjuanita Gonzalez. "I really have a problem with that."

Shane Creamer, the board's executive director, who was visibly frustrated Wednesday with the continued criticism of his staff's proposals, has insisted the cash limit could not be set at zero because the city code's definition of gift permits cash ("rendering or deposit of money").

Given that predicament, the board decided Wednesday to send Council a formal letter asking its members to consider amending the code - "to ban cash and solicitation," as Gonzalez put it.

Mayor Nutter's chief integrity officer, Joan Markman, who has criticized the proposed rules at several board meetings, said the mayor favored changing the code.

"We're stuck with an ordinance that's not well written," Markman said after a testy exchange with Creamer over her views of the proposed rules.

The road to new gift limits has been a long one, winding its way through five board meetings, each of two to three hours. The proposed limits have been revised significantly after each meeting - starting at $250 in value per year and now looking at a drop to a $50 limit in what a city official or employee could accept from one nonfamily source in a year.

Late in Wednesday's meeting, board member Phyllis W. Beck asked her four colleagues to state a preference on the total gift-value limit. All agreed with her preference - $50 - except Brian McCormick, who liked the staff's recommendation of $100 as an easier limit to enforce.

The board could vote on the rules in January, but some members were eager to see first how Council would respond.


cvargas@phillynews.com215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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