Ethics ruling sets up barrier for some
At 68, Joseph Manko has lived a life committed to two passions: politics and public service. He has raised money for presidential candidates, won a delegate spot at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and most recently, co-chaired Mayor Nutter's fund-raising committee. He has also served as a Lower Merion Township commissioner and on the Fairmount Park Commission. Two weeks ago Nutter also named him a member of the city's high-profile Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At 68, Joseph Manko has lived a life committed to two passions: politics and public service.
He has raised money for presidential candidates, won a delegate spot at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and most recently, co-chaired Mayor Nutter's fund-raising committee. He has also served as a Lower Merion Township commissioner and on the Fairmount Park Commission. Two weeks ago Nutter also named him a member of the city's high-profile Zoning Board of Adjustment.
But for the first time, he has found himself forced to choose between his twin passions.
Because of a Philadelphia Board of Ethics ruling that took effect with Nutter's first day, Manko is prohibited from being politically active while serving on the park commission or zoning board. He won't even be able to wear a campaign button for a presidential candidate.
"It's over the top," Manko said this week. "It's going to make people who want to voluntarily serve give up a significant part of their First Amendment rights. . . . Now I won't be able to do anything but vote or give money."
Rules limiting political activity have long applied to full-time city employees, as spelled out in the Philadelphia City Charter.
But members of city boards and commissions generally have been exempt, thanks to a number of piecemeal rulings by the city solicitor's office over the years. Though there were some exceptions, for the most part only boards that paid members $40 or more per meeting fell under the charter provision.
That changed after the city Department of Licenses and Inspections asked the Ethics Board last October to offer its opinion on whether the political activity limits applied to four boards the department oversees.
The Ethics Board took the opportunity to evaluate 81 city boards and commissions with an eye toward creating a comprehensive and consistent standard.
It then issued an opinion that extended the limits to members of 25 city boards and commissions. The Ethics Board did so on the theory that those bodies wield considerable power and thus, under the rules of the City Charter, should be as free of politics as possible. Compensation to board members was also a factor.
The Philadelphia Prisons Board and Free Library, for instance, are covered by the limits but the Police Advisory Board and Solid Waste Advisory Committee are not.
The ruling - which specified at least 18 prohibited political activities - has set off something of a firestorm among Philadelphians active in both civic and political life.
"Geez, I can't wear a 'Senator Casey' button? It doesn't make sense," said Patrick Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization of unions.
Eiding has been a member of the City Planning Commission for the last two years. He now has to decide whether he can continue to serve. Playing politics, he acknowledged, is central to the role of a labor leader.
"If I find I cannot do my everyday job because of it, I will have to back out," Eiding said.
His advisers are reviewing the restrictions, he said, and if they recommend he step off the planning commission, he will. Already he is making plans to resign from two political committees he chairs.
"There has to be a line drawn someplace. I don't know what the ethics of Philadelphia has to do with electing someone president," Eiding said.
Even good government types have questions about the impact of the Ethics Board's ruling.
"I'd have to know more about their thinking than I currently do to be able to say it is good or bad," said Zack Stalberg, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "But I'm definitely concerned that it could prevent good people from taking these jobs, which are for the most part thankless kinds of jobs anyway."
Ethics Board members say they are fully aware of the criticism, including that their ruling means the city's standards are now more stringent than those for most federal employees.
"All of us have heard from friends or friends of friends who say, 'What do you mean I can't wear a Hillary button?' " said Richard Glazer, chairman of the five-member board. "I tell them I agree the law is overly broad, and if you feel strongly about it, you ought to do something about changing it."
But that change should come in the form of a ballot initiative to reform the City Charter, Glazer said.
The Ethics Board was merely enforcing the law as stated in the charter, not creating it, he said.
"I'm proud of what we did in terms of coming up with a way to deal with this going forward," Glazer said.
One person who thinks a mistake has been made is Maurice Floyd. A longtime city political consultant, he for years has earned $50,000 annually as a member of the Board of Viewers, which reviews eminent-domain cases.
The Ethics Board said he must now comply with the restrictions, but Floyd believes that is wrong because his board is controlled by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
"They're overreaching on this stuff," he said. Nonetheless, for now, Floyd intends to do nonpolitical consulting work. "I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude," he said.
Nutter as a councilman led the push that two years ago resulted in the newly reinvigorated Ethics Board.
As mayor, he is asking potential appointees to submit signed forms saying they understand their political limitations.
In an interview last week, he downplayed any hindrance the restrictions have had on his effort to fill board positions.
At the same time, Nutter said: "I am somewhat concerned about the impact on the overall group of people that you can approach."
He said he intended to hold a discussion "very soon" with the Ethics Board.
"I don't completely understand all the logic they used, why they selected some boards and not others," he said.
Two elected officials who have reservations about the new limits are City Councilmen Bill Green and Bill Greenlee. Last month, they sought to introduce a resolution to hold hearings on the matter, saying in a letter to colleagues: "We believe the Ethics Board exceeded its authority . . . [and] essentially amended the charter without holding public hearings, let alone informing the public of their intent."
At the mayor's request, they've agreed to hold off until Nutter meets with the councilmen.
Said Green, "I don't think we want to limit the pool of people who are qualified professionals who give up time to serve the city."
Here are examples of political activities prohibited by the city charter, according to an opinion of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics:
Serving as an officer or member of a committee of a political party or body. This includes being a ward leader or committeeman.
Distributing printed matter, badges or buttons in support of any candidate for public or party office or political party or body.
Wearing badges, emblems, signs, posters and the like in favor of or against a political party, body or candidate. This includes wearing campaign buttons and displaying campaign posters or lawn signs.
Arranging a public meeting, rally, dinner or social function for a political functionary.
Soliciting money for the support of any issue, political party or body, or any political purpose that is identified with a candidate for public or party office.
Campaigning for any candidate for political office anywhere in the United States; it is not limited to Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.
For the full list (.pdf) of restricted activities, go to http://go.philly.com/cityethics