City Council members Bill Green and Marian Tasco are sending a delegation to the city Board of Ethics, looking for a way to ease political restrictions on city employees without changing the City Charter.
The mission could defuse a dispute that has lined up Mayor Nutter and the city's most influential political-reform groups against a Council proposal that would let Council set the rules for political activity by city workers.
The proposal is poised for a final Council vote, in time to send it to voters for a public referendum next November. But Council delayed action last week, and set up a meeting this week at which Green's chief of staff, Sophie Bryan, and Tasco's chief counsel, Derek Green, will meet with Ethics Board staff members to explore alternatives.
"We've decided to sit down with the Ethics Board and see if we can work something out that's acceptable to everybody, that would not require us to pass that Charter change," Bill Green said last week.
The current City Charter, approved by Philadelphia voters in 1951, strictly prohibits city employees from working for a political party or campaign. But there's looser language on political expression, allowing a city employee "to exercise his right as a citizen privately to express his opinion and to cast his vote."
An old Civil Service rule known as Regulation 29 - so old that current officials are not certain when it was adopted - interpreted the Charter provision restrictively, saying it barred off-duty employees from wearing campaign buttons or putting a candidate's bumper sticker on their personal cars.
A task force appointed by city officials and civic groups to evaluate ethics and campaign-finance laws concluded last year that Regulation 29 was too restrictive. It urged the Board of Ethics to reconsider the restrictions and permit employees to express political opinions while off the job, away from the workplace.
Nolan Atkinson, a new Ethics Board member, told Council two weeks ago that the board has begun discussing new regulations, but he suggested that official action would be months away.
Meanwhile, City Council has moved to do away with the Charter restrictions and substitute its own collective judgment for what city employees should be allowed to do.
Besides permitting city workers more latitude in expressing political views, a companion bill before Council would allow thousands of city workers to participate in politics on their own time, working for candidates or seeking office themselves as committee people or ward leaders.
The Charter change is opposed by the Nutter administration, the Committee of Seventy, the city Board of Ethics and the task force which studied city ethics laws last year.
"Allowing political activity by City employees, even off the job, increases the risk of partisan politics influencing government in a way that allowing political expression does not," said former federal prosecutor Michael Schwartz, the task-force chairman, testifying in City Council two weeks ago. "It also presents monitoring and enforcement challenges to ensure that political activity stays truly 'off the job.' "