City Council on Thursday approved new ethics laws that will regulate lobbyists for the first time and set limits on contributions to inaugurations, transition committees and legal defense funds.
Council notably did not vote on the most controversial piece of the package - a ballot initiative that would allow Council to loosen restrictions on political activities by city employees, which currently only voters can do.
Council's actions and inaction on the political activity bill, observers says, are meaningful steps that will both strengthen the ethics climate while addressing the complaints of elected officials who have to live by them.
"Council did a good job today," said Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg, whose job advocating for government reforms has made his Council's chief rival. Stalberg hugged Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco, one of his chief critics, to prove his point.
Thursday's vote was the result of an uncommonly cooperative working relationship between Council and the reformers it often butts heads with - including the Nutter administration, the Board of Ethics, the Committee of Seventy, and the Mayor's Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform.
Stalberg said Council appeared to have backed off a proposed ballot question asking voters to change the 1951 charter authorizing Council to allow city workers to participate in political campaigns, including holding lower level party positions such as committee person or ward leader.
Tasco would not give up on the possibility of a ballot initiative, but appeared poised for compromise.
"We will continue to work with the Ethics Board and its staff to develop reforms for Philadelphia," said Tasco, who spearheaded the ethics package with Councilman Bill Green and Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez. "Since this charter provision has been in since 1950, we want to be deliberative about looking at any changes we make and certainly have all the groups that we work with on board."
The Ethics Board has indicated its willingness to issue regulations that would allow for greater political expression for city employees, who under current intepretation of the law cannot place a lawn sign for a candidate on their property or wear a campaign button.
The five bills that passed would:
Require lobbyists to register and file quarterly reports of their activities and expenditures. The Board of Ethics testified that it could not track these expenses without funding, and that funding has yet to be budgeted.
Limit contributions to candidates' legal defense funds, inaugural committees, transition committees. Those types of contributions are currently unregulated. The new bills would set the city's standard contribution limits on those areas.
An individual donor could give up to $2,600 total and a committee could give up $10,600 total to a transition committee, inaugural committee, or to help retire debt after the election. Separately, the same donor could give up to the corresponding limit to a legal-defense fund.
One bill would tighten up the fine schedule and allow the Board of Ethics to adjust fines up or down based on the severity of the offense.
Stalberg and Nutter had opposed the bill that allows ward committees to print sample ballots without the cost of those ballots counting as in-kind contributions to each candidate names on the ballot.