Ethics board tackles politics among city workers

    The City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics plans to loosen restrictions on political activity among city employees. A public hearing on the proposal Wednesday provoked sharp debate.

    The city’s charter sharply restricts employees’ rights to engage in politics. That’s because of the city’s history of corruption, said Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, the civic watchdog group.

    “This is a particularly unusual political culture,” Stalberg said. “It is clear what you’re choosing to give up if you become a city worker.”

    But many agree that city rules banning employees of the city from planting lawn signs or wearing buttons off the job are unconstitutional.

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    Rule changes proposed by the ethics board would permit those and other basic forms of political expression, but would still bar employees from serving as party ward leaders and committeepeople. An exception is the City Council staff members who have been allowed to do more politicking for 60 years.

    The ethics board proposes to continue allowing council staffers to serve as party officials, but it would ban them from involvement in fundraising activity.

    The Committee of Seventy wants tighter rules for council staff. Former federal prosecutor Michael Schwartz testified for the reform group at Wednesday’s hearing.

    “We cannot support giving City Council staffers a free pass to actively work on campaigns and serve in party capacities, while the remaining city workforce is bound by the ethics rules,” Schwartz said.

    City union leader Cathy Scott said the new rules are still too restrictive, noting that they even ban city workers from volunteering on a presidential campaign.

    “The city of Philadelphia employees remain essentially second-class citizens, unable to participate fully in specific dialogue, which is the political electoral system,” Scott said. The ethics board hopes to adopt new rules in a few weeks.


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