An end to an era of ‘soft corruption’: Delaware County Council revamps its ethics code

Delaware County Council (Google maps)

Delaware County Council (Google maps)

Delaware County Council is tackling government ethics issues head-on, approving an ordinance that bans council members from profiting from county contracts.

“How could it be that elected officials can have a financial interest in the contracts that they’re handing out? But the reality is that there really wasn’t such a limitation in Delaware County,” Councilman Kevin Madden said.

As unanimously approved, Ordinance 2021-2 amends the county administrative code by adding a section that explicitly prohibits council members and immediate family members from “knowingly” having financial interests in an entity involved in a contract with the council. Violations of this new rule come with a variety of penalties, ranging from a reprimand and a censure to a hefty fine of up to $20,000.

A violation can be avoided only “if a Council member recuses her or himself from voting on a contract in which such Council member (or an immediate family member) has a minor financial interest and submits a written statement listing the reasons for such recusal,” according to the amended code.

Adoption of the new rule this month not only appears to be a rebuke of political machine corruption, but also the fulfillment of promises made by the members of the now all-Democrat County Council.

“We’ve all campaigned on this issue. And it’s something we take seriously and … it’s something we believe in, and we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” Councilman Brian Zidek said.

Before the current council took control in 2020, Delaware County was run by a majority-Republican government for more than a century.

Both Madden and Zidek were elected four years ago. Madden recalled a culture of “soft corruption.”.

“There was this inner sanctum of people in power who profited off of their positions. Their for-profit work was so closely aligned with the work that they did as elected officials, and that has had to end,” Madden said.

Without naming names, Zidek recalled specific scenarios in which one of his former colleagues engaged in the same type of behavior that has just been banned by the council.

“I would have people come before me, and they would say, ‘Hey, you know, here’s so-and-so presenting.’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, wow, they have the same last name as you. Are you guys related? And then they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my daughter, or that’s my son, or that’s my brother,’” Zidek said. “And we would have contracts going out to folks who had done subcontracts to people who serve on Council.”

But Zidek cautioned against assuming that this issue is native to the GOP.

“If Delaware County has any political party in power solely for years and years and years, whether it’s the Democratic Party or Republican Party, these issues arise. Political machines are not ideologically based. They exist in a Democratic world, and they exist in the Republican world,” he said.

Councilwoman Christine Reuther was elected in 2019 as a part of the wave that flipped the county from red to blue. She believes that the recent steps toward reform are a huge step forward.

“I think it really is historic, in the sense that Delaware County has long been a Republican-controlled county, it’s had a Republican machine that’s been sort of the benchmark for suburban political machines around the country. I mean, books have been written about it. And it’s truly been a machine,” Reuther said.

The move to put an end to a culture of patronage serves two purposes, she said. The first is that Delco is no longer engaging in the practice. “And number two, to send a message to the voters that we’re going to hold ourselves to the same standards that on the campaign trail we try to hold our opponents to,” Reuther said.

Putting together the new ethics ordinance wasn’t a walk in the park, said: It required nuance and compromise to make sure the amended code wasn’t too restrictive.

Previously, this iteration of the County Council also adopted an ordinance that banned members from receiving gifts.

“Another issue that we want to bring up is to require attribution of political contributions. So if a company is bidding on a particular project, and they have given money to political campaigns, they will have to disclose that in the bid,” Zidek said.

The council is also looking at a county version of the Hatch Act, which would restrict certain political activities from executive-level elected leaders.

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