City Council Has an Ethics Committee! (But It Never, Ever Meets)

Long live corrupt and contented Philadelphia.


Philadelphia is one of the most corrupt major cities this side of Lagos. From the ABSCAM convictions in 1981 to Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown’s 2013 admission that she broke campaign finance law, we’ve had nine lawbreakers on City Council over a 32-year period. If you’re not particularly good at math, know that this averages out to more than one lawbreaker for every four-year Council term.

And that’s just City Council. It’s not counting all of the lawbreakers and alleged lawbreakers in other parts of Philadelphia government, nor all of the ethical violations that haven’t quite sunk to the level of “lawbreaking” but that sully our image all the same.

It’s not counting the under-indictment former L&I official Dominic Verdi; and it’s not counting the so-corrupt-it-was-disintegrated Philadelphia Traffic Court; and it’s not counting the cornucopia of questionable moves, relationships, and whiffs of stinkiness that exist at pretty much all levels of the city. (No, we didn’t forget about you, Latrice Bryant.)

In short, Philadelphia is as “corrupt and contented” as it was when journalist Lincoln Steffens described the city thus in his essay collection The Shame of the Cities, published 100 years ago.

So it’s good to know that Philadelphia’s City Council has a Committee on Ethics.

Except … City Council’s Committee on Ethics never meets. And by never, we mean never.

If you search the City Council online calendar, which purportedly documents all City Council and committee meetings dating back to 2000, there is not a single entry for the Committee on Ethics. In fact, if you do a full-text search for the word “ethic” or “ethics” in the calendar database, which includes the agendas of and notes from meetings, you get zero results.

Dozens of other committees — from the Committee on Technology & Information Services to the Committee on Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs — get their own drop-down boxes on the calendar, but not the Committee on Ethics, presumably because there is nothing to catalog. Ethics? Who needs ’em.

City Council President Darrell Clarke is chair of the pretty much non-existent Committee on Ethics, and his office verifies that the committee hasn’t met in as long as anyone can remember. Councilwoman Marian Tasco is vice-chair, and her office couldn’t be bothered to answer any questions about the Committee on Ethics. (UPDATE: The Committee on Ethics hasn’t met since June of 1993.)

It’s perfectly understandable that the committee doesn’t want to meet, since its own rules stipulate that almost all of the committee’s “hearings, actions and recommendations shall be conducted in public,” so all of the dirty laundry would be out there for the citizens to see.

Clarke’s office says that while the Committee on Ethics never, ever meets, the city now has the Board of Ethics to deal with any ethical messiness that is afoot. So, we don’t really need a Committee on Ethics, because the Board of Ethics is doing such a bang up job.

Well, no.

“The Ethics Board is not a substitute for an internal ethics committee,” insists Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, vice-president and policy director for political watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “The Ethics Board’s job is to administer and enforce the city’s ethics, conflict of interest, and financial disclosure laws, and they investigate complaints brought to them on matters related to those laws. As I understand it, the Ethics Board has no jurisdiction over alleged misconduct outside these specific areas.”

It’s also worth noting that while the Committee on Ethics is supposed to do its work in public, the Board of Ethics is a much more private arrangement*. It is true that the Board of Ethics holds monthly public meetings and issues the occasional public statement, but the majority of its work is not done publicly.

If it’s never going to meet, which seems to be a pretty safe bet, the Committee on Ethics could just disband. Of course, that would lead to the headline “City Council Disbands Committee on Ethics,” which would let the public know that a committee on ethics once existed, that it never, ever met, and that ethics were so unimportant to City Council that it disbanded the committee supposedly dedicated to policing ethics. That’s not a headline City Council wants.

Philadelphia: corrupt and contented.

* Note: This paragraph was originally attributed to Kaplan. That attribution was made in error.

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