AFTER MONTHS of heated debate over how to regulate gifts to city employees, the Ethics Board decided yesterday to turn to an unlikely party to resolve its ethical quagmire: City Council.

The board's proposed regulation would set specific dollar limits for what kinds of gifts city workers may accept or solicit. Some good-government advocates say this would encourage people to solicit and accept gifts up to that limit.

Why not just ban employees from soliciting or accepting cash gifts altogether? Because the wording of the city law - employees may not accept or "solicit" gifts of "substantial economic value" - means that any regulation based on the law must allow for at least some solicitation of gifts of insubstantial economic value.

So the board yesterday authorized its staff to begin lobbying Council to explore changing the law.

Some critics of the proposed regulation, like Mayor Nutter's administration and the watchdog group Committee of Seventy, agreed that approaching Council was a good move.

"It's a crappy ordinance," said Joan Markman, Nutter's chief integrity officer. "We have an ordinance that is written in a way that could cause some problematic interpretations, so let's fix the ordinance."

The People Paper last month informally polled a majority of Council on what an appropriate gift ban would look like, especially for employees and members of Council. Most said that although the issue is not a priority for them, they would consider a proposal if one of their colleagues introduced a bill.

"I got a million things I got to get straight, and this ain't one of them," Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell said. "We have an ethics law. We try to abide by it."

Councilwoman Cindy Bass said she does not believe a change in the law is needed now.

"The enforcement has to be stepped up," she said. "There has to be a level of common sense. It's not one-size-fits-all."

Councilmen W. Wilson Goode Jr. and Curtis Jones Jr. said they would support a total ban.

"We don't need gifts," Jones said. "We get paid every two weeks, and that is a gift in itself."

Councilman Jim Kenney said he supports limiting gifts, but not banning them.

"Certainly, a trip to the Bahamas to play golf - I get [banning] that. But a friendly lunch to talk about something that's going on? I don't think that's an issue," Kenney said. "There are ways of just being nice to people without bribing them. You get to a point where it starts splitting hairs to the point of ridiculousness."

A spokeswoman for Council President Darrell Clarke said he will wait for the Ethics Board's recommendations before making a statement.

The most recent proposal from the board's staff would limit cash gifts to $25 per year per giver, and noncash items like sports tickets to $100 in value.

A majority of board members said yesterday that they would be more comfortable with a $50 ban on noncash items and would pursue, through Council, a ban on cash gifts and on soliciting gifts.

Right now, most city employees are covered by a strict executive order from Nutter that prohibits almost all gifts. Future mayors, however, could undo Nutter's rule, prompting some to say it's time for a permanent gift ban through law or regulation.

- Staff writer Jenny DeHuff

contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN

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