November 13, 2016, The Morning Call, Nicole Radzievich
BETHLEHEM — Most can agree that an elected official can’t vote or make a decision from which they can profit. Think rezoning their own property for redevelopment or deciding to award themselves a grant or tax credit.
But should elected officials abstain from votes that could help a close friend? How about a political contributor? Should political contributors be barred from city contracts? Who should mediate these matters?
Those are some of the questions that Bethlehem City Council members would like to explore in the coming months as they put together a proposal for an ethics ordinance in Bethlehem.
Council members Olga Negron and Michael Colon want to consider an ordinance that could include an Ethics Commission. And, in a separate effort, Council President J. William Reynolds said he plans to propose in January his own bundle of ordinances “designed to make the city more progressive, efficient and transparent.”
“I think [ethics ordinances are] a good things for municipalities to have, not necessarily in response to a specific issue but to prevent issues from arising in the future,” Colon said.
To kick off the discussion, the League of Women Voters of Northampton County and Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative will host a forum at Town Hall at 7 p.m. Thursday. State policymakers, local officials and academics will participate in a panel discussion.
“I think this is a great opportunity to learn a little bit more about what others have done and what we can do here to make better decisions as elected officials,” Negron said.
Municipalities across the state have addressed this in different ways. Easton created an ethics board several years ago when it wrote its Home Rule Charter. Allentown, which is embroiled in an FBI pay-to-play investigation, has a year-old ordinance that bans contractors who contribute $250 or more to an elected city official or candidate for city office during a calendar year from entering into a non-competitive bid contract with the city.
In Bethlehem, political campaign reports must also be filed with the city for publication online. Last year , Mayor Robert Donchez instituted a “No Gift” policy, banning city employees from accepting free concert tickets, fancy meals and other freebies from vendors, developers and others who do business with the city.
Other local ethical questions, including one in Bethlehem, have been investigated by the grand jury convened by Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli. The grand jury in 2014 took former City Councilwoman Karen Dolan to task for using her public office to seek benefits for the nonprofit she ran. The grand jury report found no criminal wrongdoing but recommended she resign, which she did.
Negron said she identified the need for an ethics ordinance last year, when she was a candidate for council, after attending the hearings about the rezoning of Martin Tower. Some residents questioned how elected officials could cast an unbiased vote after receiving political contributions from the developers.
Having a commission to guide elected officials or mediate questions could head off improprieties before they happen, Negron said.
The panel discussion will be moderated by John Kincaid, director of Lafayette College’s Meyner Center for the Study of State & Local Government.
If you go:
What: Bethlehem ethics forum
When: 7 p.m. Thursday(doors open at 6:30 p.m.)
Where: Bethlehem Town Hall, 10 E. Church St., Bethlehem
The panelists: Leigh Chapman, director of policy at the Pennsylvania Department of State; attorney Brian Jacisin, director of investigations at the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission; attorney J. Shane Creamer, executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics; attorney Michael Cooke of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics; and Allentown City Councilman Julio Guridy.