The ethics reform movement at City Hall seems to be losing its groove. Mayor Nutter, who was elected on a pledge to clean up City Hall, is in danger of forfeiting his stature as the lead reformer if he doesn't take stronger steps to maintain the independence of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics.
City Council seems to have run out of what little energy it ever had for ethics reform. Council members and other elected officials appear to be chafing under the watchdog role of the Ethics Board and the city's tough campaign-finance law - an indication the board is doing a good job.
The board did open itself to criticism when it was disclosed that Executive Director Shane J. Creamer Jr. breached confidentiality rules. But it was surprising when Nutter appeared to support Council Majority Leader Marian Tasco in her aggressive criticism of Creamer.
At Council meetings for two weeks running, Tasco argued that Creamer should be fired for breaching confidentiality rules when speaking to a reporter.
Nutter didn't go that far, but offered a lame call for a separate investigation. That didn't sound like the same guy whose mayoral campaign ads talked of throwing the bums out of City Hall.
The ethics board did bring in outside counsel to examine the breach - disclosed, as it happened, by Creamer himself. It was an infraction requiring discipline, but hardly a firing offense.
Even before that episode, Nutter slashed the board's budget by nearly 20 percent - a far deeper cut than most city departments have had to absorb amid the economic downturn. That means cutbacks in investigative resources needed to probe unethical conduct, and less money to conduct ethics training.
Meanwhile, the board hasn't been operating at full strength for months, even though it has done stellar work in policing the city's political players.
That's due to a delay in the mayoral appointment and Council confirmation of a candidate to fill a vacancy. Soon, a second vacancy is expected with another member's departure.
Filling those vacancies with strong, independent candidates should be the priority - even if Council doesn't like Nutter's choices.
That's why it was disappointing to watch the mayor pull the plug on his latest nominee to the ethics board, retired businessman Edward Kung. Council members didn't give Kung much of a hearing. But Nutter could have stuck to his guns, since the nomination would take effect automatically if Council failed to act within two months.
Instead, Nutter nominated the Rev. Damone B. Jones Sr., pastor of Bible Way Baptist Church in West Philadelphia. Nothing against Jones, who served on the ethics board under former Mayor John F. Street. But Nutter himself bypassed Jones early in his term, so the appointment appears to be a valentine to his old Council pals, who appear more comfortable with a better-known religious and community figure not known for rocking the boat.
Council gave Jones its preliminary blessing yesterday after he played down penalties for ethics violations in favor of education. Ugh.
Going along to get along sets the wrong tone, if Nutter is serious about changing the political culture at City Hall.