Rumble over rules at the Ethics Board

    It was about as close to a good bar fight as government policy wonks will get.

    Yesterday the city Board of Ethics invited public comment on proposed new rules for political activity among city employees, and the venerable reform group the Committee of Seventy duked it out with a staff member from City Councilman Bill Green’s office – in a completely civil way, of course.

    The issues are fascinating. Seriously.

    For decades, Philadelphia city employees have lived under prohibitions on political activity that are insanely restrictive, and probably unconstitutional. Our city workers couldn’t plant a lawn sign at home, or wear a political button on their own time. Working in a political campaign or being a party official was out of the question.

    Those restrictions came out of the squalid political culture and scandals that gave birth to the current city charter in the 1950’s, and whatever sense they made at the time, they were clearly in need of review.

    So the Ethics Board has proposed new rules which allow city workers to get involved in some political activity, provided it’s on their own time and doesn’t involve city resources.

    Under the rules they can wear buttons at home and sign nominating petitions, but they still can’t be party officials, – read ward leaders and committeepeople – and they can’t work in political campaigns, even on their own time.

    But there’s an exception. City Council employees have been allowed more political leeway for nearly 60 years under a 1952 city solicitor’s opinion that said they, unlike regular city workers, can run campaigns, and become committeepeople and ward leaders.

    The proposed new rules mostly leaves that exception intact, though it does bar Council staff from being involved in political fundraising.

    That’s what prompted the civic fisticuffs.

    The Committee of Seventy says the exception makes no sense, that it effectively ratifies hackdom in city hall. Testifying for Seventy at the hearing was Michael Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor who headed the public corruption unit here.

    He said Congress has long recognized the importance of keeping politics out of the halls of government, requiring Congressional staff to take leaves of absence to work on political campaigns.

    After Schwartz finished, Sophie Bryan of Councilman Bill Green’s office testified.

    She said Philadelphia’s rules are the most restrictive of the nation’s 40 largest cities, and she pointedly accused the Committee of Seventy of taking liberties with the facts in making its case.

    She said Schwartz was completely wrong about the Congressional staff rules, quoting the following from the House Ethics Manual:

    “Once House employees have completed their official duties, they are free to engage in campaign activities on their own time, as volunteers or for pay, as long as they do not do so in congressional offices or facilities, or otherwise use official resources.”

    I asked the Committee of Seventy about it afterward, and President Zack Stalberg (full disclosure: he hired me at the Daily News 20 years ago) said they’ll look into it. But he said the fundamental point is that Council staffers don’t deserve a free pass on rules other city employees have to follow.

    City union leader Cathy Scott made an impassioned case that the rules unfairly restrict all city employees’ rights to get involved in the political process.

    Smart people all, with valid points to make. I’ll offer two thoughts:

    First, there’s an element of pragmatism in the Ethics Board’s decision to maintain most of the exemption permitting Council staff to do politics.

    The Ethics board has ticked off some City Council members by doing their job – enforcing campaign finance and ethics rules. City Council controls the Ethics Board’s budget, and gets to confirm its appointees.

    I think the Ethics Board decided that some fights just aren’t worth starting, and that there’s something to be said for gradualism in reform. And they can fairly note that their prohibition on Council staffers doing political fundraising is a meaningful change.

    Given the remarkable things the Ethics Board has accomplished so far, I’m loathe to quarrel with them on this.

    Second, I have to note the fascinating dilemma the Board faces in crafting rules for political activity among city employees.

    On the one hand, we’re used to seeing politics here a means to corrupt ends, a way for greedy hacks to get their hands on the public purse and power. Take that view of politics, and you want as many restrictions as you can pile on.

    On the other hand, political activity is the core of democracy – citizens expressing deeply-held beliefs and organizing to elect those who share them. Deny that to city workers, you can argue, and you don’t just penalize them, you weaken democracy.

    The truth of course, is that politics is both of these things, and devising rules for our public employees that strike the right balance is a daunting task.

    I think the Ethics Board we have now is as good a group as you’ll get to take it on.

    Good on ’em.

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