Council, ethics board differ on gift ban limit

Posted: February 21, 2014

THE CITY Ethics Board - which has grappled with how to regulate gift-giving to city officials and their staff for months - is happy City Council is moving toward changing the laws that were tying their hands, the board signaled yesterday during its regular monthly meeting.

An ordinance, introduced by all members of Council on behalf of Council President Darrell Clarke, amends a portion of the Philadelphia Code by placing limits on gifts from anyone having a financial interest in a city matter to any employee who can affect official action.

The Ethics Board is waiting on Council to take any action on the ordinance before it votes on a regulation of its own, which contains similar language to the bill, but has a few differences.

The biggest difference between Council's bill and the board's regulation is the cap on the value of gifts allowed. The ethics board recommends a limit of $50 on gifts. Council's bill places the cap at $99.

"After months of consideration and public comment by the chief integrity officer of the city, the board did come to the conclusion that $50 would be an appropriate amount," said Phyllis Beck, the Ethics Board vice chairwoman and retired judge.

"I think it's important to convey that message to Council that the board had publicly arranged for $50 to be the supported amount," she said.

In drafting a new gifts-ban measure of its own, the Ethics Board essentially forced the issue with Council, driving members to introduce the change to the city code. Good-government watchdog groups like the Committee of Seventy have long expressed concern the city's existing rule on the solicitation of gifts is weak and lenient. The Ethics Board is trying to tighten up those rules.

"The section, as it's worded in the bill, would allow for restricted sources to treat city officials and employees to unlimited lunches, dinners or whatever, as long as they talked about business," said Michael J. Cooke, the board's director of enforcement. "That [carries] the potential impact - and it doesn't mean folks will use it that way - but that could be used as a loophole."

Both the Ethics Board's regulation and the Council bill ban cash gifts. The Committee on Law and Government will hold hearings on the bill on Monday. Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer Jr. is expected to testify.


On Twitter: @RuffTuffDH

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