Ethics Law Proposed in Bethlehem

In an effort sparked during the rezoning of Martin Tower a year ago, two freshman Bethlehem City Council members introduced Tuesday an ethics proposal aimed at protecting Bethlehem from the pay-to-play politics that have scarred other communities across the state.

Council members Olga Negron-Dipini and Michael Colon want to prohibit city officials and employees from receiving gifts of more than $100, attempt to limit the influence of big campaign contributors, strengthen disclosure rules and establish a board to police infractions.

The council members want conflict-of-interest rules that would require officials to abstain from voting on issues involving anyone who contributed more than $250 to their campaigns.

A five-person Ethics Board would have the power to publicly censure violators or recommend their suspension or ultimate termination. It would also be able to impose up to a $1,000 fine and restitution.

But perhaps more importantly, Negron-Dipini said, the board would educate public officials on ethics standards to avoid even the perception of impropriety.

“A strong ethics program with an independent ethics board can actually assist public officials in meeting their responsibilities to the public, enhance public trust and … avoid scandals,” Negron-Dipini told reporters Tuesday morning at Town Hall.

Standing beside Colon, Negron-Dipini said she did not have a specific example of any ethics infractions but noted that, while running for office, she heard from many people who pointed out the campaign contributions that the owners of Martin Tower made legally to elected officials. The administration proposed and council voted to rezone the 53-acre, vacant property.

Negron-Dipini did not allege any improprieties, but said such an ethics law would curb people from questioning officials’ motives behind such votes.
She is not proposing a budget for enforcing the proposed ordinance. The ethics board would require an investigating officer. Negron-Dipini said she hopes the legal work would be pro bono or covered by legal services.

Bob Warner, a Common Cause Pennsylvania spokesman, applauded the effort but advised that, if rules are set up, they become “close to meaningless” if there is no “dedicated staff” to enforce them.

Mayor Robert Donchez declined to comment on the 31-page proposal until he studies it. He noted the city has a no-gifts policy for employees, a campaign disclosure law and other ordinances that require council to approve certain city contracts.

Council President J. William Reynolds said he will release his own proposal on government accountability next week. Reynolds said the proponents made “it clear publicly” the proposal is about Negron-Dipini’s “anger at the way Martin Tower issue was handled” by the administration. Some residents were angered by the eventual disclosure that city officials were discussing behind the scenes with Martin Tower developers during the drafting of the ordinance.

“I am just starting to read through the draft and the notes she forwarded to City Council, but am looking forward to a bigger conversation about transparency and accountability in government,” said Reynolds, who received contributions from the owners of Martin Tower.

Negron-Dipini called for such an ordinance during that zoning hearing before she was sworn into office. She and Colon have been working on the proposal for a year and last November convened an Ethics Forum, sponsored by the Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters and Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative.

Barbara Diamond, a League member who had voiced concerns over campaign contributions in the Martin Tower rezoning, was among several residents who attended City Council’s meeting Tuesday evening to support the proposal.

“It’s not about impugning anyone’s integrity,” said Diamond, who worked on the proposal. “It’s about a good government initiative.”

Colon said he thought the city should review the proposal soon, as primary campaigns gear up for local offices, to ensure “transparency” and “ethical behavior.” He noted that Allentown is embroiled in a pay-to-play investigation.

“It’s more important to be proactive than reactionary,” Colon said. “If we wait until we have good reason to establish something like this, by that time, it will be too late.”

Negron-Dipini said the proposal draws from state law and ordinances that govern Philadelphia, Easton and Reading. She was eager to hear her colleagues’ ideas and was open to changes.

The draft proposal contains campaign contribution limits for elected officials, but Negron-Dipini said those limits “become unimportant” if council agrees with the plan to require elected officials to abstain from voting on a matters involving big campaign contributors. That abstention measure is not in the current draft forwarded to council. She plans to propose adding it.

Common Cause’s Warner cautioned that the devil would be in the details.

He said limits on campaign contributions have “a very clear effect” on curbing corruption. He said requiring council members to abstain from voting on matters involving contributors would be challenging to execute. It’s very difficult, he said, to figure out where interests begin and end.

“Suppose I gave $500 to a councilman and a zoning issue comes up in my community,” he said. “I have an interest. Would we want that councilman to be prohibited from voting? If you have a business, you have any number of different interests. How do we define when interests are so close to a particular [vote] that it requires an abstention?”

The proposal has been referred to a committee of the whole for informational purposes. The proposal must be reviewed by city lawyers before the committee considers it, Reynolds said.

– Nicole Radzievich, The Morning Call, January 3, 2017

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