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Council OKs bill to rein in lobbyists

But it didn't vote on a ballot initiative to allow political activity by city workers.

City Council on Thursday approved ethics laws that will regulate lobbyists for the first time and limit 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.

Council's actions and its inaction on the political-activity bill, observers said, are meaningful steps that will strengthen the ethics climate while addressing the complaints of elected officials who have to live by the laws.

"Council did a good job today," said Committee of Seventy president Zack Stalberg, whose job advocating for government changes has made him 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 uncommonly cooperative work between Council and those 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 City Charter and authorize 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 greater political expression by city employees, who under the current interpretation of the law cannot place a sign for a candidate on their lawn or wear a campaign button.

The 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, and transition committees. Those types of contributions have been unregulated. The bills would set the city's standard contribution limits on those areas. An individual could give up to $2,600 total and a committee up to $10,600 total to a transition committee, to an 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.

Tighten the fines schedule and allow the Board of Ethics to adjust fines up or down based on the severity of the offense.

Allow ward committees to print sample ballots without the cost of those ballots counting as in-kind contributions to each candidate on the ballot. Stalberg and Nutter opposed this bill.