Regardless of what a jury decides about Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon’s future, his bribery trial may have done little to disabuse anyone of the notion that corruption flourishes in our local corridors of power.
After all, this is hardly the first — and certainly not the last (see: United States v. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson) — time a member of the city’s political establishment will be in court to face a federal indictment.
The charges against Henon center on outside employment with a local union in addition to his job on Council. Taken together, his and other high-profile cases make clear that in order to ensure public accountability and to prevent any potential conflicts of interest, it is essential that City Council prohibit its members from holding second jobs.
While it isn’t illegal for City Council members to have more than one employer, that doesn’t make it ethical, a position this board has long held. Three other Council members currently hold outside jobs: Councilmember Derek Green is “of counsel” at the politically influential Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel law firm, which describes him as a practicing attorney. Councilmember Brian O’Neill is a retired counsel with Fox Rothschild, another well-connected law firm. Councilmember Allan Domb has been a well-known businessman in the city for decades. In addition, Council members David Oh and Isaiah Thomas both have ownership stakes in local small businesses.
Henon’s situation is somewhat distinct, as the main responsibilities of his role with the city’s powerful electricians union seems to have primarily involved lobbying on its behalf with his fellow Council members and in other quarters of city government. This is odd, given that on past disclosure forms, Henon lists his position with the union as simply “electrician.”
Other Council members with outside employment may protest that none of their jobs have drawn the attention of federal prosecutors, and that a ban on holding second jobs would discourage those from outside the political sphere from even considering a run for office.
Domb, who donates his annual salary (which exceeds $136,000), says his office has worked closely with the city’s Board of Ethics to ensure that any legislation he proposes or plays a significant role in drafting meets that body’s ethical standards. Domb noted that a recent proposal he authored on the regulation of streeteries would prevent some of his own establishments from serving customers outdoors. Green and O’Neill also collaborate with the ethics board to avoid conflicts.
Still, committing to the work of public service means answering first and foremost to the voters of Philadelphia — even if that means sacrificing income and influence in the private sector. And it’s not as though Council members are slouches when it comes to pay. According to a 2016 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Philadelphia City Council members are among the highest paid in 15 major U.S. cities in average council salary, behind Washington and Los Angeles. In New York City, where council members face the additional constraint of term limits, a ban on outside employment was passed in 2016. This ban was part of a deal that also gave New York’s City Council a larger-than-planned pay raise, lifting their pay above that of our own City Council’s.
Besides the significance of pay, there are plenty of issues in Philadelphia that need the attention of full-time employees. Gun violence, toxic schools, persistent poverty and income inequality, the rapid rise in housing prices, and growing scarcity of affordable rental homes are problems that require complete engagement. Philadelphians, including this board, have often complained about Council’s getting the summers off — meaning that there are four months a year when they’re not meeting — but even that time can be valuable if it is used to serve constituents.
It’s unrealistic to think that any of the Council members with potential conflicts would introduce a bill to ban outside employment. But it’s crucial that the remaining members find the courage to work together to draft legislation that would increase the public’s trust in their vital work.