The Morning Call, April 6, 2017
Breena Holland: Bethlehem’s proposed ethics ordinance would avoid ‘quagmire’
The recent ethics board “quagmire” in Allentown reveals some important limitations in the city’s government ethics program.
Allentown’s program puts responsibility for appointing members to the Board of Ethics in the hands of the city’s mayor, which at present is someone who has a stake in cases before the board. Additionally the “circuslike atmosphere around the Board of Ethics,” as reported in The Morning Call, is the consequence of an ethics complaint process that provides insufficient confidentiality protections.
Both problems could be solved by an ethics ordinance that adopts best practices in the field of government ethics. Such an ordinance is exactly what Olga Negron and Michael Colon, members of Bethlehem City Council, recently proposed for the city of Bethlehem.
Informed by research and individual consultations with a wide range of experts, their ordinance — the City of Bethlehem Public Official and City Employee Ethics Act — establishes a comprehensive municipal ethics program for addressing political accountability and corruption at the local level. It incorporates best practices being used in communities throughout Pennsylvania.
Unlike the Allentown program, which relies on the city’s mayor to appoint members to the Ethics Board, the Bethlehem ordinance requires that not less than three non-partisan civic organizations prepare the list of nominees. To further avoid the selection of nominees with extreme partisan or political bias, the ordinance also establishes constraints on the kind of involvements with city government that any member nominated to the Ethics Board can have previously had.
Because the ordinance proposed in Bethlehem also requires that there be two alternate members to serve on the Board of Ethics, the loss of any one member would not challenge the board’s legitimacy, leaving it stuck in neutral as questions are raised about whether the mayor would need to cast the deciding vote in a case in which he also has a personal stake.
Bethlehem’s ordinance also would prevent the loss of trust in government that results from making information about ethics complaints public before those complaints have been subject to review and decision by the Ethics Board. City employees would be prohibited from taking an active part in the political campaigns of candidates for city office, and for this reason a complaint might very well be made against a policeman who has been campaigning for the mayor of the city, which happened in Allentown.
However, the complaint process in the Bethlehem ordinance would keep information about the complaint confidential until the Ethics Board issues a decision. This requirement guards against malicious and politically motivated complaints intended to cause damage to reputations independent of whether the board finds the complaint to be legitimate. Thus, an accusation of ethical code violation would not become a matter of public discussion that fosters distrust in government before the Ethics Board has even ruled on the validity of the complaint.
The ordinance that Negron and Colon proposed in Bethlehem adopts these and many other best practices in government ethics. Perhaps most important, it establishes a conflict-of-interest code that goes beyond the Allentown ethics program by requiring recipients of campaign contributions to abstain from deliberating and voting on a matter that would benefit their campaign contributors.
This mechanism for eliminating both the practice and appearance of bias is unique in its potential to avoid free-speech violations, since the votes of public officials (who are merely representatives of their constituents) do not count as a protected form of speech.
While it is indeed true that campaign contributions from single donors can still be filtered through PACs and political committees, posing transparency challenges because they are difficult to track, these indirect contributions also involve third parties in a way that would require explicit expression of a quid-pro-quo expectation. Consequently, elected officials are more likely to recognize the unethical nature of such expectations, and if they deliver on them, the involvement of third parties increases their risk of exposure.
Any government ethics program may not be perfect. But Bethlehem’s ordinance (available at goodlocalgovt.wordpress.com) would prevent the kinds of ethical problems that currently plague Allentown. When it comes to a system of donation and recusal requirements, perfection should not be made the enemy of efforts to adopt best practices.
Breena Holland is an associate professor in the department of political science and the environmental initiative at Lehigh University. She is a member of the citizens group that worked with Bethlehem City Council members to prepare the ethics ordinance.
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