By Ellen Mattleman Kaplan

Petty corruption on a mass scale.

That's what we fear is about to happen in a town where people can be bought for a soft pretzel.

And with the endorsement of the enforcers of the city's ethics rules.

That would be the Philadelphia Board of Ethics. On Nov. 20, the board is holding a public hearing on its proposed regulation of city government's policy for employees accepting gifts. Those rules say employees can't accept anything of "substantial economic value that might reasonably be expected to influence" them in doing their jobs.

The board wants to attach a dollar figure to "substantial economic value" so that each and every city employee doesn't get to determine what this vague and subjective term means.

Assigning a real number makes a lot of sense. What doesn't is what the board's proposal would allow: Cash gifts up to $50; noncash gifts up to $200. Every year. From people with whom they do city business.

Think we're kidding? Here are two examples taken right from the proposal:

A lawyer who wants a job in the law department can give City Solicitor Shelley Smith a prepaid $49 debit card.

A vendor with a Department of Parks and Recreation contract can give department head Mike DeBerardinis a $199 vase.

And a restaurant owner can slip a Licenses and Inspections inspector $5, $10, or $20 during his visit - as long as the cash doesn't top $50 a year and isn't being given to influence the outcome of an inspection.

The board says its hands are tied. It's stuck with the rules on the books and can only interpret what "substantial economic value" should be - not delete or change it.

And the staff who drafted the proposal contends lower financial thresholds - such as the $50 limit set in New York City and Chicago - would require tons of exceptions. Like for job applicants or vendors or restaurant owners who want to give cash or gifts because they are personal friends of Smith, DeBerardinis, or the L&I inspector, not because they are trying to influence them.

As we all know, in this incestuous small town, everyone is a chum of everyone else. So the board's staff is worried that enforcing the limit would force them to dig into personal relationships to see if there's a genuine friendship or if the giver is actually only a friend of a friend of a friend of the city employee.

We don't buy it. And, what's more, the Ethics Board should know Philadelphia better than to even put this on the table.

Here's what we urge the board to do:

Set an annual limit of no more than $50 in gifts to city employees and officials from anyone who has or is actively seeking city business - except gifts from immediate family members and life partners. Mayor Nutter's current, tight gift acceptance policy, which governs people who report to him, only permits gifts of "nominal value" on rare occasions.

Require both givers and recipients to justify to their supervisors and the Ethics Board, in writing, gifts in excess of $50 that they believe should be an exception because the parties are really and truly bosom buddies. We'll see how many are willing to go to these lengths for a debit card or vase.

Outlaw cash gifts. And this includes checks, money orders, or prepaid debit, credit, or gift cards. Under-the-table payments are too easy to give and too hard to track.

Tell City Council to fix the current rules to include the $50 annual gift limit. It won't be the first time the Ethics Board has recommended changes in city laws when they either don't exist or do exist but are too broad or unenforceable.

Insist on a gifts rule that applies to all city employees and officials. The mayor's gifts policy exists because of an executive order, which could disappear if the next mayor doesn't like it.

The Ethics Board should show some spine. Its members, past and present, along with their staff, have aggressively overseen the city's ethics, campaign-finance, and lobbying laws. They must not let the city down now.

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan is vice president and policy director for the Committee of Seventy. ekaplan@seventy.org