Two weeks after a Philadelphia City Council member was convicted of bribery, Council President Darrell L. Clarke proposed a modest tweak of city ethics rules: that Council members must provide written notice when they recuse themselves from votes due to a conflict of interest.
Clarke, who introduced the proposal Thursday, has had little to say about Councilmember Bobby Henon’s conviction. And Clarke’s spokesperson denied the new measure was a response to the criminal case.
“The legislation isn’t in reaction to the federal jury’s verdict,” said the spokesperson, Joe Grace. “But it is an attempt to clarify Council’s rules … and to ensure every councilmember knows what those rules are.”
A federal jury convicted Henon and union leader John Dougherty last month of bribery charges, finding that Dougherty bought Henon’s loyalty with a $70,000 annual union salary from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and that Henon used his position on Council to advance Dougherty’s agenda.
Henon has said he’s not going to resign until his sentencing in February and participated in Thursday’s Council meeting, the second since he was found guilty. He and Dougherty face years in prison.
Clarke’s legislation would require Council members to provide written notice of financial interests and recusal from votes within five days after legislation is introduced, or at the public hearing on that legislation. The written notices would go to Council’s chief clerk and all members of Council.
Written notice isn’t currently required, though city and state laws forbid officials from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest.
A resolution accompanying the ordinance states that the Board of Ethics and Department of Records would keep a public record of all written notices of recusal. And if a Council member fails to disclose financial interest, they would be notified of it and given an opportunity to explain it. If they don’t, the case could be referred to Council’s Committee on Ethics.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for the good-government group Committee of 70, questioned whether leaving Council in charge of enforcing its own conflict-of-interest rules would be an effective approach. He said that the requirement for a written disclosure is a helpful step but that the current language on the conflict-of-interest law is still outdated, narrow, and difficult to understand.
Of Clarke’s legislation, he said: “I hope that’s not in relation to the issues that came up in the trial because this is not nearly covering the scope of items that we need to be focused on.”
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who has clashed with Local 98 and has called for Henon’s resignation, has advocated for more substantive reform in reaction to his conviction. She said this week that she will introduce legislation next year limiting outside employment for Council members. Grace declined to comment Thursday on whether Clarke would support Quiñones-Sánchez’s bill, noting that Clarke doesn’t speak about legislation before it is introduced.
Christmas said limiting outside employment and strengthening disclosure requirements are the most important reforms needed in the wake of the trial.
“And it’s really important that we get this right in the weeks ahead,” he said.