No More Gifts at City Hall

Weird that it's taken until 2014 for Philadelphia to definitively prohibit graft.

When I was a rookie reporter making the rounds in small-town Kansas, I returned to the newspaper offices one day and told an older reporter that the fine folks at the Fire Department had shared a cup of coffee with me. The older reporter was livid: “Never take a cup of coffee!” he ordered me.

We were journalists, he said, and journalists shouldn’t take so much as a packet of sugar from the people we covered—no reason ever to give the public the idea that we were compromised in the news we were giving them.

I still think that reporter was perhaps a bit extreme in his outlook—a cup of coffee was never going to buy me off—but I think the impulse was a good one. Serving the public interest (as journalists believe they do) means holding oneself to a higher standard.

Which means it’s a no-brainer to outlaw gifts to Philadelphia city employees.

Gladly, City Council is in agreement. Every member is co-sponsor to legislation—which goes before the council’s Committee on Law and Governance on Feb. 24—that would ban “officers and employees” from accepting any cash gifts at all, or any gifts of any kind with a value more than $99 in a given year. The bill would replace vague, decades-old rules suggesting that employees accept no gifts of “substantial economic value.” Nobody ever really figured out what that phrase meant, making the law virtually unenforceable.

Now, the revamping of the law hasn’t been accompanied by any of the usual lurid anecdoes of graft detailing why it might be needed—but we all live in Philadelphia, right? There’s a reason that the “Philly shrug,” the bane of Daily News columnist Helen Ubiñas, exists. We’ve all seen enough headlines and most of us assume that the people who work for us at City Hall aren’t really working for us.

And that’s not right.

The new bill is all about how government gets done. The idea isn’t: If you’re a city employee, that you can’t go get a beer with buddies. Unless one of your buddies has business in front of City Hall, business which you can affect. If that’s the case, you shouldn’t be taking gifts or money from that buddy. Even if it’s innocent, it’ll look bad. The appearance of a conflict of interest, as they say, can be just as bad as the real thing.

It’s very, very difficult to imagine why a city employee would ever accept—or solicit—a gift from somebody with business before City Hall, unless that gift was intended to create favorable ground. Then again: This is Philadelphia, the world’s smallest big city—relationships can get complicated sometimes.

But it’s never that complicated.

It is odd that it has taken until 2014 for Philadelphia to finally come up with a law definitively prohibit what amounts to low-key bribe-taking and bribe-making. Maybe that’s what passes for progress around here. We’ll take what we can get.